Here is another STRATFOR article worth reading in regards to the options available to China after the death of Kim Jong-il:
China has every reason to want a smooth transition of power in North Korea as the post-Kim Jong Il period begins. This is because North Korea provides a strategic buffer to China and, through Pyongyang’s nuclear program, leverage via mediation in the international arena. North Korea also is a valuable economic asset to China. Therefore, Beijing’s interests will be to maintain the regional balance of power.Analysis
Perhaps no country has more to gain from maintaining the status quo in Pyongyang than China. Likewise, Beijing stands to be affected more negatively by any deterioration in the orderly turnover of power. Mao Zedong best described North Korea’s strategic importance to China when he characterized the relationship between the two countries with the phrase “when the lips are gone, the teeth get cold” — an acknowledgement of North Korea’s importance as a buffer state to protect China’s borders. Beijing also uses its ability to deal with Pyongyang as leverage on the international stage, even as North Korea’s isolation and status as a nuclear power make it an unsteady partner with which to share a 1,334-kilometer (829-mile) border.
China was already preparing to play a stabilizing role in the expected political succession in North Korea. Beijing will now try to manage any potential disruptions to the power transfer. Although Kim Jong Un may be an unknown element, the rest of the North Korean regime is not. Beijing has exchanged a number of high-level visits with North Korean officials in the past few years, and these contacts have increased in 2011.A smooth transition would not only protect China’s basic security interests, but it may even present Beijing with an opportunity to increase its influence over the North Korean regime.
How a Stable Transition Could Deteriorate
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Beijing has prepared itself to try to steer North Korea’s regime toward a relatively pro-China stance. The death of Kim Jong Il has the potential to create uncertainties that might result from internal conflicts. The third generation of North Korea’s power structure is about to take power. To see how complications could emerge during the power shift, one need only recall the 1994 transition from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il. Kim Il Sung only had one son, and it was known for more than 17 years that Kim Jong Il would be his successor.
Beginning in 1970, Kim Jong Il held a number of different government positions, and by the time he was appointed the first vice chairman of North Korea’s National Defense Commission (NDC) in 1980, little doubt remained that he would take over leadership once Kim Il Sung left the scene. Yet Kim Jong Il needed three years to fully consolidate his hold on power. That succession was complicated by crop failures and natural disasters that led international observers to declare North Korea in famine conditions — as well as Kim Jong Il’s need to pull North Korea’s elite in line.
Kim Jong Un’s claim to power is far less established. He does not have much experience, and when talk of succession began in North Korea in 2001, his eldest brother, Kim Jong Nam, appeared to be next in line. The transition to Kim Jong Un was far from complete when his father died, though the elite seem to have coalesced around the transition for now. In the long term, the potential exists for different factions, which emerged to back potential successors, to take advantage of Kim Jong Un’s inexperience, thus opening up an internal competition for influence among these factions.
A key bloc in support of Kim Jong Un is led by Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, who oversaw economic reforms in earlier years. Jang is reportedly close to China, and he was the most prominent member of a loose “pro-China” faction that may have initially backed Kim Jong Nam, before a scandal caused the latter to lose his status as the surest choice for succession. Since 2008, Jang has backed Kim Jong Un.
China’s Potential Role and Beijing’s Priorities
A series of meetings between Kim Jong Il and authorities in Beijing suggest that China should be attuned to North Korea’s succession plans and that it should have lines of communication open with important elites and figures in the regime. Kim Jong Il visited China three times this year, and some sources in South Korea suggested North Korea’s succession plan may have been high on the agenda during meetings with Chinese officials. In addition, Chinese Premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, as well as Chinese military officials, visited North Korea in recent months as part of an effort to deepen Beijing’s influence over senior North Korean officials, particularly within the military.
The factions within North Korea’s elite that are the most likely to support Kim Jong Un during the transition are strong supporters of China. These include Jang, who serves as vice chairman of the NDC and thus wields substantial influence in the military. These figures could serve as reference points for China as Beijing works to make sure its strategic interests regarding North Korea are addressed. These interests are manifold:
- North Korea is a critical component of China’s buffer strategy, offering strategic depth and supplementing China’s defense forces with natural barriers. Meanwhile, internationally, China’s mediation and negotiation role in Korean affairs also makes North Korea an important component in the trade-off between Sino-U.S. relations.
- Maintaining stability along the North Korean border is highly important to Beijing. A large influx of refugees could impact China’s core northeast region, which extends to Beijing. China fears that this could trigger domestic instability. So far, the only overt show of force has occurred along the Chinese side of the border, as the border region is known to be both an area of lower political reliability and a potential entry point for external instigators to try to slip into North Korea to exploit the transition.
- China wants to exploit North Korea’s international isolation to exert political and economic influence over Pyongyang (China accounts for around 70 percent of North Korea’s trade) and to wield that influence on the international stage. China stands to benefit by offering itself as a mediator in — or by acting to interfere with — multilateral talks.
- Beijing wants to curtail any South Korea-led, U.S.-supported unification of North Korea and South Korea.
As the post-Kim Jong Il period begins, China’s interest in maintaining stability in North Korea lies in avoiding changes in the international balance of power in the region and staving off any potential problems along China’s northeast border. Over the past several years, and particularly following Kim Jong Il’s 2008 stroke, China has increased substantially its economic ties with North Korea, expanding its role as the lifeline of the North Korean regime and state. Currently China provides 80 percent of North Korea’s consumer goods and 45 percent of its food. This economic penetration has enabled Beijing to maintain substantial influence in North Korean policy, allowing Beijing to leverage its international behavior through Pyongyang and other powers. The economic expansion was coupled with Beijing’s renewed involvement in various elements of the North Korean elite structure.
For now, Beijing will employ a deliberate “wait-and-see” approach with North Korea while seeking to strengthen ties with new leaders and elite factions. Nevertheless, Beijing will keep a close watch on the moves of other players likely to affect China’s strategic calculations.