Amid N. Korea succession, China makes push for stability

January 4, 2012

In the days after Kim Jong Il’s death last month, China’s most powerful leaders hurried to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, where they fanned across the parquet floor and bowed three times to Kim’s portrait. One Chinese state councilor was “hardly” able to keep back tears, North Korea’s state-run news agency later said.

The show of public support lasted more than a week, with odes to the “Dear Leader” and congratulations to his young heir, Kim Jong Eun. But the message was also noteworthy for what it lacked: China said almost nothing about how North Korea’s new leadership should run or reform the country.

Pyongyang’s precarious power transfer has narrowed China’s goals on the Korean Peninsula, experts here say, turning Beijing from a benefactor and adviser into a protector — concerned foremost with preventing collapse, not pushing for improvement.

During Kim Jong Il’s final years, China drew North Korea close but also pressed for economic reform. Now, China has a shorter list of priorities. It wants to keep North Korea afloat and help Kim Jong Eun grow from a nominal leader into an established one.

China is trying to keep North Korea stable primarily by giving unconditional support to the succession and telling other countries to be cautious. Kim Jong Eun received a key endorsement Saturday from Chinese President Hu Jintao, who sent a note of congratulations when Kim was named North Korea’s top military commander. Shortly after Kim Jong Il’s death, China’s foreign minister had called his counterparts in Russia, Japan, South Korea and the United States to urge “stability” in dealings with the North, the Beijing government reported.

Among the targets of that message was the State Department’s top Asia diplomat, Kurt M. Campbell, who was dispatched Tuesday on a three-city tour — Beijing, then Seoul, then Tokyo — largely to discuss strategy on dealing with Pyongyang’s new “great successor” and his cadre of backers.

“China wants no war and no chaos,” said Jin Canrong, an associate dean of international studies at Renmin University of China. “It still wants economic reform and denuclearization as well, but those are distant third priorities.”

For the short term, officials in South Korea and the United States don’t mind the Chinese approach: They would prefer the stability of a dictatorial North Korean government to the chaos of a failing one.

But that is the extent of their common ground. Stocked with nuclear weapons, long-range missiles and a 1.2-million-member military, North Korea represents a security threat to Washington and its closest Asian allies, Tokyo and Seoul. China, though, considers North Korea a security buffer against the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

The notion of a democratized Korean Peninsula with U.S. troops positioned directly along the Chinese border — one scenario in a North Korean collapse — is threatening to China because of Washington’s other moves in the region. The Obama administration, describing the United States as a new “Pacific power,” has in recent months strengthened economic ties with the Southeast Asian countries it once neglected; it has also built relationships with some of Beijing’s neighbors, particularly Vietnam and Burma, threatening Chinese influence.

“So China’s thinking with North Korea reflects its growing anxiety about the region,” said Zhu Feng, a North Korea expert at the University of Peking. “Look at all the peripheral areas [where the United States is involved]. China doesn’t want another flash point.”

China accounts for about 80 percent of North Korea’s trade, and it supplies just enough food that North Koreans suffer from shortages but not the dire famine of the mid-1990s. China has also been increasingly permissive, unwilling to condemn two North Korean strikes against the South in 2010.

Still, China hasn’t always managed to parlay that support into influence. Kim Jong Il, with his ultranationalist ideology of self-reliance, often seemed ashamed of his need for a foreign benefactor. Chinese officials took him on field trips to stock exchange headquarters, convention centers and manufacturing plants, as if to show him the blueprint for reform. But Kim always resisted, fearful that major economic liberalization would erode his control of the country — and knock his family out of power.

For all the headaches China gets from dealing with North Korea, it also gains access to a government that others in the region know almost nothing about.

Among the biggest tasks, analysts say, is determining when and whether Pyongyang’s ruling elite will be willing to reenter talks on the denuclearization of North Korea. The Chinese government, which maintains close ties with Jang Song Thaek — a key senior official overseeing the power transfer — might be able to provide Seoul and Washington with answers.

“China will use that information for power,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia specialist at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. “They won’t drive an easy bargain. They’re looking at the U.S. pivot [toward] Asia, and they’ll say, ‘We’ll cooperate with you on North Korea. But you’ve been too antagonistic in the region.’ ”

If North Korea is interested, China could help broker a return to the six-party talks — the process designed to coax Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. Officials in Washington and Seoul are doubtful that Pyongyang will relinquish its nuclear arsenal, but shortly before Kim Jong Il’s death, U.S. officials were discussing a resumption of food aid to the North. In return, North Korea reportedly was considering a freeze of its uranium-enrichment program.

Even if the United States is skeptical about North Korea’s sincerity, the move could mark a first step in a return to the six-party process. China would go along with the plan largely because North Korea is less likely to carry out military strikes against its neighbors if it is engaged with them. After the November 2010 shelling of a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak changed his country’s rules of engagement, allowing for more forceful counterstrikes against North Korean attacks. He again warned Monday of strong retaliation if North Korea acted out.

China’s North Korea policy remains contentious here, with microbloggers and even some academics deriding Pyongyang as an untrustworthy partner. But those criticisms have not swayed Chinese leaders. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao recently called Kim Jong Il a “great party and state leader,” according to a Chinese government news release.

“Our current leaders, they pay more attention to stability,” said Jin, the international studies associate dean. “They don’t want to achieve something. They just want to avoid something.”

Researchers Liu Liu and Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.
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