The range of possible events that could arise from the death of Kim Jong-Il runs from a degree of liberalising reform to nuclear war, which is to say that anything could happen, a prospect that would be slightly less terrifying if Western observers could do more than guess at the political machinations playing out around in Pyongyang. North Korea is legendary for its secretive isolation, often enforced at gunpoint; even the few tourists who venture there witness only a revolutionary pantomime of real life, in lieu of actual contact with any human being.
Yet the decisions of the small cabal of warlords are almost matched for opacity by those of their main (and only) backer – China. The Communist Party’s stance on the various crises to plague the Koreas in the past few years has been confused at best. Hu Jintao begs constantly for more dialogue, more talks, more regional harmony and co-prosperity, and still refuses to even mention the notion that North Korea might be a threat to its neighbours. Despite burgeoning trade with the South, China grows defensive whenever the North launches an attack, kidnaps a Southern film director (I kid you not), or fires missiles off into the sea, retreating instead into bland calls for peace and dialogue, more hippy than authoritarian.
The attachment of China’s leaders to this bizarre, desolate scrap of land would seem to fly in the face of their avowedly pragmatic, ‘scientific’ foreign policy. The troughs of aid that the Chinese have poured into the place have bought little political influence, and have not even persuaded the North Korean army to stop shooting hapless Chinese farmers who stray too near the border. At a time when China’s rulers craves international respect and political influence, propping up a near-medieval backwater seems an odd choice.
The fact is that for all China’s mantric rambling about peaceful, harmonious development, the Communist party still promotes the belief that China is surrounded by racist-capitalist-imperialist-conspiracists led by the United States, waiting to carve the country up as soon as a weak point appears. Riots are blamed on the CIA, and foreign film and music condemned as ‘spiritual pollution’; phrases like “America’s strategy is clearly to mark out a line encircling China and make China suffer for crossing it” appear frequently in Chinese papers (that quote is from the Global Times, a paper that makes even the most jingoistic tabloids of the West seemed naive and oversensitive).
It is easy to dismiss much of this as blustery propaganda, but the ‘America threat’ carries as much weight as does the ‘China threat’ on American talk shows. The Kim dynasty comes into the picture as a handy buffer state that ensures China need not share a border with an American ally. The idea of American troops attempting to conquer part of China via the Korea peninsular might seem outlandish, but the scars left by the Korean war (remembered, to be precise, as the “campaign to resist America and save Korea”, the ‘United Nations’ coalition that actually defended the South always placed in scare-quotes) run far deeper in the People’s Republic than in the States, where the war was largely eclipsed by Vietnam.
Sadly for the North Koreans, the American right is doing all it can to confirm the Party’s paranoid conspiracy theories; John Huntsman’s claim that an angry, internet-savvy generation of dissidents is rising up to “take China down” is only the most recent quote to be seized upon as evidence of American imperialism by, ironically enough, Chinese internet users. Were the US give Chinese fears even a modicum of attention, with, perhaps, an offer to remove American troops from South Korea if North Korea could be pacified, deadlock might be broken. At the very least, it would be better than simply pretending that such concerns, however unfounded, do not exist.
Even if China accepted that US policy is not solely directed at bringing it 2500 year old cultural heritage crashing down, there is no grand bargain that could be struck to free Korea, not least because promoting unification, and consequent democratisation, would be politically impossible for an authoritarian government. At best, a clearer understanding of what America and China want from the peninsula, and less cynical paranoia from the Chinese, would help avoid another Korean War in the far from unlikely event that the North dissolves into chaos.
Sino-American relations will centre on Korea for the next months, perhaps for years if events take a particularly unfortunate turn, but Chinese obstructionism should not be viewed as inevitable or without cause. China does not need the Kims, and indeed that continued support for their barbaric little fiefdom is the principal reason that China’s international ambitions are viewed with suspicion in the first place. North Korea will without doubt be less stable even after Kim Jong-Un’s coronation, but the first potential crisis to emerge in decades, in which both China and the US have a stake, will create a real opportunity for trust to be built. It is worth approaching positively, even if the alternative may be deadly chaos.