North Korean Leader's Death Becomes China's Worry


In the hours following the announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death, while international news sources had already churned out volumes, the only reference provided by China’s state run newspaper, China Daily, was the following statement: “Kim Jong-il, top leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), died last Saturday, the DPRK's KCNA news agency reported on Monday.” The paucity of the statement is telling of how cautious China will be in managing its response to the North Korean leader’s death. 

From a Chinese perspective, Kim Jong Il’s passing is unwelcome news for many reasons. China developed an exclusive relationship with the late leader due to the countries’ geographical proximity and political similarities. The first foreign trip Kim Jong Il took in four years was to tour northeast China and meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao. But, this close relationship with Kim Jong Il was mainly fueled by a desire to maintain a stable buffer state keeping South Korean and American Marines far from China’s border. His passing has already caused turmoil as the South Korean military is on emergency alert, creating a tension the Chinese want so desperately to avoid. Along with military volatility, China worries about thousands of migrants surging across its borders seeking refuge.

Instability also jeopardizes China’s established trade links with North Korea. In 1995, China-DPRK bilateral trade was approximately $550 million. The number reached $2.6 billion in 2009. Also, China has been ratcheting up direct investment in hopes that the DPRK will adopt more open economic policies in the future. Due to its mineral rich northern region, an increasing number of Chinese industrial companies have expanded their operations across the border.

With these interests in mind, and to no surprise, China will support whichever leader will maintain the status quo. This seems to be Kim Jong Il’s hand-picked successor and son, Kim Jong Un. It’s important to note that, despite Kim Jong Il’s notorious reputation abroad, domestically he was loved as a strong leader. His son will enjoy more popular support than any potential usurper in the upper echelons of the North Korean government.

However, coupled with reaffirming stability, China could use this unique opportunity to increase its political leverage. With a possibly weaker DPRK, the North Korean leadership could look to depend more on its powerful western neighbor during this difficult transition. Some estimate that China supplies the DPRK with approximately 90% of its energy imports and 45% of its food. Now more than ever, the DPRK will want to secure this tie with the region’s strongest economic power. This could provide an opening for Chinese officials to exert more of its clout on its neighbors. China has encouraged North Korea to modernize its economic policies in order to increase the standard of living for its people thereby promoting stability. This might be an opportunity push this agenda. 

In addition, as North Korea’s principal ally, China may be petitioned by the international community to act as intermediary as both a source for information and as a more rational authority. Beijing’s line of communication to Pyongyang is rare and other nations and international agencies will call on China to use it effectively and responsibly. While this position is certainly a burden, it could increase China’s political leverage outside of the Asia-Pacific region as well. 

A friend of mine from Dandong, a Chinese city located on the North Korean border, described the stark contrast of the two nations as literally day and night. She said that whereas the Chinese light up their homes like Christmas, North Korean citizens sit in the dark on the other side of the border. As the only state to consistently breach North Korea’s self-imposed seclusion, perhaps following Kim Jong Il’s death, China will be able to increase its influence to bring some measure of change. That being said, China will certainly put its own interests first.

Yet the Chinese realize that their immediate and subsequent reactions will have lasting effects throughout the region.

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