Uncertainties of North Korea's Outlook

By He Qinglian on 

The most watched news these days should be the death of Kim Jong-il, the dictator of North Korea. Yet the attention the international community has on the matter is of mixed feelings.

Most of Western democracies wish that from here onward North Korea would end its totalitarian dictatorship, embark on the path of reform, and cease to be the scourge of the world—the political stability of East Asia in particular. But for China and Russia, the political patron of North Korea, their concern for North Korea has a more complicated context. Comparing the two countries, China's level of concern and the sense of kinship are stronger than that of Russia. One could tell this from the mourning specification, choice of word in the eulogy from Beijing and the way Chinese state media reported the news. Visit an internet gateway and all that could be seen were Kim Jong-un is about take over, the military and the civilian have vowed to support the successor; as well as political gossip like the public cried in memory [of the Dear Leader], some elderly women collapse from crying on scene. The telegram sent from Beijing fully expressed the sorrowful mood a dictator has over the loss of a close friend.

The Chinese people, however, went through similar scenes in 1976 when Mao Zedong passed away, and became accustomed to insincere texts like this. No one took official propaganda seriously. Apart from expressing joyous feelings over the passing of a dictator, netizens are more concerned with how the political situation in North Korea would evolve.

How the political situation in North Korea would evolve depends on several uncertainties and the degree of these uncertainties influencing one another.

First, the situation depends on how internal politic would evolve in North Korea. The current new master Kim Jong-un got handpicked by Kim Jong-il as political successor was not because of the extraordinary political talent he has, but rather the kinship and the degree of grace his mother enjoyed. This way of succession is almost a living fossil of the throne of a feudal dynasty being passed on from one generation to the next.

Regarding how Kim Jong-un secures his power, Korea's JoongAng Daily reported on September 22 that Kim, who served at that time as vice-chairman of Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea has started restructuring the North Korea's armed force, replacing first tier commanders with officers from the younger generation who are loyal to Kim Jong-un. At the same time, he began to gradually take over Party affairs, creating his personal authority by ordering North Korean households to hang his portrait. At the moment, there is no unusual movement in North Korea's political orientation, but there is the desire to improve the economy. According to a report by Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun in early December, Kim Jong-un said on conference that “the national economy has to return to the levels of the 1960s-70s in three years so that the people can have a standard of living that allows them to eat rice, drink meat soup, live in tile-roofed house and wear silk.” Prior to this, he said, “in the past it was okay not to have food, but definitely not without bullets; today, it would be okay to have no bullets, but there must be food.”

Beijing should be happy to see North Korea start its economic reform. First, this is because China's reform began at the starting point of keeping the people well-fed; second, improvements in North Korea's economic situation would ease the aid burden on Beijing. But if North Korea wishes to embark on the path of political reform, the attitude of Beijing and Russia would be completely different.

Russia's attitude toward North Korea has been made clear by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of pro-Kremlin Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. He said although the populace of North Korea is tired of the current way of life, and yearns for South Korea's democratic system, the post-Kim Jong-il North Korea would continue the Stalinist political system. Because, so long as there is no real democracy in China and Russia, the two main backers of North Korea, people should not expect North Korea could be democratized. Zhirinovsky said with certainty that, “only when the Communist Party of China collapses, and Russian society becomes more democratized, can change take place in North Korea.” Currently, the political prestige of “Putin the Great” is shaking, but whether the country can move out of political winter and enter the Russian spring depends on the development of the situation in Russia over the next few months.

As for Beijing, although it knew for sure the passing of Kim Jong-il would bring uncertainties to Sino-North Korean ties, Beijing still hopes that it could control North Korea, the country that has been an important “strategic asset” in the hands of Beijing. At different times, this “strategic asset” could serve different purposes. During the “Cold War”, it was a crucial barrier of the protective Communism belt created by China's dictatorship; during the ten years of China's “peaceful rise”, North Korea was one of the significant weights with which China challenged the United States. The existence of North Korea and the troubles it causes with Beijing's silent approval was a behind the scene helper that continually push China toward the center of the world's theater. Some has given the following comment [on the ties of the two countries]: “It is hard to imagine that without North Korea the troublemaker, would Western leaders think of their Chinese counterparts as often as they did. For Chinese leaders who desperately need a stage to showcase China as a major power, this would certainly be disappointing.” Today, North Korea remains an important tool for Beijing to maintain the balance of power in Northeast Asia. Therefore, out of its subjective wishes, Beijing would definitely want no change to take place in North Korea. Yet, Kim Jong-il died an ill-timed death—exactly when Beijing suffered diplomatic setbacks and its influence in Asia-Pacific region rapidly declined.

Hence, Beijing's influence over North Korean political situation has to be determined by the following factors: first, observation results of Kim Jong-un's ability to govern and the gains and losses of high level political forces in North Korea; second, the degree of influence the international community has on North Korea; third, development of domestic politics in Russia.

Since November this year, China has had a succession of diplomatic setbacks, in particular Myanmar, the country with which China has formed a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” for years, is distancing itself from Beijing. All this forced China to change its once tough approach. Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared recently that “China has neither the intention nor ability to drive the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region. And the country has shown an unprecedented opportunistic flexibility in addressing its diplomatic ties with Myanmar. Recently, China's Ambassador to Myanmar held a rare meeting with the country's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and stated that China might help bring about the legalized status of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party. This move is both a reluctant acknowledgment of change in Myanmar's politics and an investment in its diplomatic ties Myanmar in advance.

It is predictable that Beijing would take on a more flexible approach in its ties with North Korea after domestic politics in China entered a high risk state. After all, Beijing has come to realize that it cannot create a long lasting impact with dollar diplomacy; and that with the serious problems in its soft power, being able to keep its own garden is already something worth cheering for.