After Kim Jong-il

Has Kim Jong-il’s death created a new opportunity for dialogue between the US, South Korea, China and North Korea?

kim jong il
No one is sure if Kim Jong-un is prepared to succeed his father in anything but name [EPA]

In one sense, the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il changes everything. It is by no means clear, for example, that Kim’s coddled youngest son, Kim Jong-un – now hailed as the “Great Successor”, but singularly unprepared to lead – will ultimately succeed his father in anything but name.

Working in Kim Jong-un’s favour is his striking resemblance to his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who, strangely, held a certain charisma for North Koreans. Looks aside, Kim III will need a lot of help; in the meantime, we can expect further consolidation by the Korean People’s Army of its leadership of the country. Even more than in the past, we must expect the unexpected in North Korea. Above all, the West must work closely with China. In that sense, nothing has changed.  

Any conversation with Chinese officials nowadays leads to the same conclusion: China wants to restart the Six-Party Talks aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear-weapons programme. The problem is that, despite commitment to the talks from all six participants – China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and even North Korea in recent months (a nominal pledge that is unlikely to be changed as a result of Kim Jong-il’s passing) – the results so far are insufficient to sustain the process.

Re-energising the talks will require renewed focus on taking steps to achieve their ends. Unfortunately, China, the party with the greatest leverage over North Korea, seems least committed to doing what is required.

North Korea is China’s neighbour, and political or social instability there is not taken lightly. It has often been said that China fears a possible refugee flow. But that is just the start.

China’s attitude toward its belligerent, impoverished neighbour is actually very complex. While there are a great many modern, business-oriented Chinese anxious to build the country’s future, there are also those who see in their plucky little neighbour something strangely admirable. Resisting foreign “pressure” is a continuing theme in Chinese history, and who does it better than the North Koreans, who seem to be prepared to fight to their last starving child?

Chinese officials, who are committed, above all, to maintaining order at home, must lose sleep asking themselves what an implosion of North Korea’s Communist party-state would mean for them. This is not so much a foreign-policy issue as it is an issue concerning China’s internal politics. The closer a country is to China, the more China views it through the lens of domestic issues, particularly internal-security concerns. Would the withering away of North Korea’s party-state affect the debate within China about the future of its own brand of communism? Many Chinese officials don’t want to find out.

‘A fragile state’

But perhaps the greatest difficulty worrying the Chinese stems from an underappreciated but familiar theme in international relations: “old think” – the inability to comprehend, much less address, new realities.

North Korea is a fragile state, even more so following Kim Jong-il’s death. For starters, it is not a national homeland, a characteristic that keeps many failing states from actually failing. The homeland is the Republic of Korea, located to the south, beyond the vistas of razor wire and well-tended minefields. North Korean propaganda has always tried to represent the country as “the true” Korea, where culture, language and everything else is supposedly on offer in its purest form. But that argument is as threadbare as the rest of the country.

The Chinese recognise that North Korea cannot survive in its current form, and have sought to encourage its leaders to embrace economic reform without political change. But, with prosperous South Korea so close, any relaxation of borders would mean no one would be left to rebuild the country. That is why the Chinese road to reform is not available to North Korea. Consider the determination of North Korean refugees, who suffer the most perilous journeys to freedom in the world, but keep making them.

So why does China persist in the tortured fiction that there is some kind of future for a reformed North Korea? The answer seems to lie in the concern that North Korea’s demise would amount to a victory for the US and a defeat for China. After all, the successor state on the Korean peninsula would be South Korea, a treaty ally of the US.

The US should be prepared to make clear to the Chinese that any change in political arrangements on the Korean peninsula would not result in a strategic loss to China. For example, while the US should never bargain with the Chinese over the US’ defence obligations to South Korea, it could engage the Chinese on some assurances that no US forces would ever be stationed above the 38th parallel. Indeed, given the current mood in the US, it might be difficult, in the context of Korean unification, to continue to station any US troops on the peninsula at all, let alone along the Yalu River.

Moreover, the US and South Korea have various plans for dealing with the humanitarian consequences of a North Korean collapse. So why not share them with the Chinese? Needless to say, such talks would be sensitive, but so would a North Korean collapse that was not preceded by a serious exchange of views on the subject.

Sooner or later, such a quite but deeper dialogue needs to start. Given the uncertain future that it portends, Kim Jong-il’s passing might be the perfect moment.

Christopher R Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, US special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is now Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

A version of this article was first published on Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.