No one knows exactly what will happen in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death. There is both fear that the ascendancy of his untested and likely untrusted son could lead to instability and violence but also the hope that the death of the “dear leader” could ultimately bring some kind of shift in policy and fortunes for the nation’s nearly 25 million citizens. China will also be watching events carefully in the country it has long protected and supported. For China, the chief goal will be to ensure stability and continuity of the existing order with minimal chaos that could threaten its own 1,000 km-long border with North Korea.
Ironically it was the death of Mao Zedong’s own son in the Korean War, or in China “The War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea” that prevented Mao from naming a son as successor after his 27 year-long rule of China. After Chairman Mao’s death in 1976, a relatively weak replacement Hua Guofeng took the reins. But there was no violent power struggle and no dynastic succession. The cult of personality and ideological fervor of the Cultural Revolution had come to and end and would soon be replaced by the pragmatism and reformist spirit of Deng Xiaoping.
For China, the rest is history. After Deng’s ascendancy in 1979, China embarked on economic reforms that have transformed it from an impoverished nation not unlike North Korea into the world’s second-largest economy today. Periodic power transfers, as the one that will occur next year have been, if not transparent, at least peaceful.
Recently there had been speculation that China would help Kim Jong Il gradually reform the economy and begin North Korea on a similar road that China began in 1979. This might include giving farmers more freedom to sell their produce and keep profits, creation of special economic zones, or perhaps limited privatization of state-owned enterprises. Bilateral trade between China and North Korea has already increased by 87% since last year.
In the end China’s chief goal in North Korea is to ensure stability and maintain influence. Their greatest fear would be a united Korea with American troops even closer to their border than they are now in South Korea. China’s intervention in the Korean War may have been framed in glowing terms of Communist brotherhood and mutual assistance but was motivated more by a fear that a UN push north of the 38th parallel could lead to U.S. troops near the Chinese border.
While talk of a united Korea is presumptuous, I asked Chinese friends in Beijing if they thought that a united Korea could presumably do without U.S. troops at all (thus assuaging China’s main fear of a united Korea). They replied, “Of course not, U.S. troops are there to defend South Korea against China, not only North Korea.” So in a commonly-held realpolitik attitude, the presence of U.S. forces in Korea and Japan is still a hushi dandan, a “tiger eyeing its prey” on China.
At the same time there is also the legitimate concern that a flood of North Korean immigrants across the rather narrow Yalu River could overwhelm northeastern China, should a civil war in North Korea erupt.
On a lighter note, the Chinese blogosphere was already awash with tributes and commentary on the death of the dear leader. One blogger on the Chinese twitter Weibo created his own riff on the holiday tune Jingle Bells, referring to Kim Jong Il by jinge, meaning “Brother Kim” in Mandarin. He wrote, “The whole world is singing jinge bye! jinge bye! jinge on the way!”
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