If North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un Is Incapacitated Or Dead, China Will Dictate What Will Happen Next
Beijing is already in control should a regime change be underway
Op/Ed By Chris Devonshire-Ellis
Rumors have been swirling around the past few days concerning the well-being of North Korea’s leader, the 36 year old Kim Jong-Un. A likely cause of his demise has been touted by Japanese, South Korean and Hong Kong media as suggesting a heart operation gone wrong, with the Hong Kong report in particular being of interest as the reporting body has close ties to Beijing.
China’s Communist Party tends not to deal with rumors concerning foreign leaders and especially when it comes to North Korea. So what could be happening? And what are the implications?
Beijing is In Position
Whatever the truth – which I am sure will be established within the next few days – Beijing is already well aware of the situation. It apparently sent a ‘medical team’ to North Korea last week, along with senior officials responsible for North Korean relations. This is a clear implication that Beijing has responded to North Korean requests, has senior officials in the country and is ahead of the game in terms of dealing with whatever is going on.
An immediate concern for China would be to ensure the country is stabilized. Kim, given his age, is unlikely to have provided for any succession, although his 31 year old younger sister, Kim Yo-Jong, has come to the fore recently as a trusted advisor. Yet it would be a major departure from the norm for North Korea to accept a woman as Head of State. Another candidate is Kim Pyong-Il, another member of the dynasty, who at 65 has the age, considerable political experience and is male. However, having spent a large part of his career as a North Korean diplomat outside the country, there remain questions about the strength of his connections to the nations all-important military. Nonetheless, a joint-leadership team of both Kim’s cannot be ruled out. The caveat is that faced with any unexpected issues with Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s leaders will require external, covert support to maintain national security. In this regard, Beijing holds nearly all of the cards.
Beijing’s Power Base
Xi Jinping and the CCP will cautiously welcome an opportunity to wield executive influence in Pyongyang. Long known for assisting with keeping the North Korean economy afloat, China has always been the friend to call on when Pyongyang has got itself into trouble. Typically, these have been economic, with the North Korean economy taking a battering it has never really recovered from after the demise of the Soviet Union destroyed much of its barter trade connections. China has wanted North Korea to follow a path of economic reform, yet progress has been limited, often to Beijing’s frustration at a regime it seems, not without displeasure, as constantly stuck in the 1950’s. Pyongyang has also proved unreliable on occasion, with its nuclear capabilities being directly contrary to Beijing’s public desire to keep such weapons out of the Korean Peninsula. Locking down Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal will be a top priority for China. To do that, Beijing needs the implied assent of the North Korean military. That will require money and cast-iron guarantees of political and personal safety for the senior families involved. Given Beijing’s experience of providing just that along the Belt & Road Initiative, the chances of success against the intense problems of failure point to this scenario as the most likely development.
It cannot be ruled out that North Korea’s internal divisions would also seek to involve Moscow and try and play Beijing off against Vladimir Putin. While Russia has also helped keep the North Korean economy afloat, it has done so to a lesser degree than Beijing – Moscow as a power base is 4,000km west from Pyongyang, while Russia has issues of its own to contend with. While players in Pyongyang may try and involve Russia, my guess is that Moscow would prefer to offer assistance yet essentially pass the buck as a political issue for Beijing to resolve. President Putin will defer to Chairman Xi.
South Korea, Japan & The United States
These countries will essentially be reduced to observers as China will be the dominant factor in the North Korean succession issue. It will be Beijing who will be the power behind the North Korean throne, seduce the military, provide guarantees where required and absorb responsibility for the military arsenal. China has the motivation to maintain the status quo; it doesn’t want North Korean refugees flooding across the border, neither is it keen to have a US backed South Korean regime take over the North. Key here are the American’s who are the only power other than China with the capability to invade North Korea. Doing so would bring it into direct conflict with China, with a high likelihood of nuclear weapons being deployed. While President Trump is maybe erratic at times it is beyond comprehension that the US military would be so hawkish as to desire a war on the Korean Peninsula. As a result this scenario can effectively be discounted. South Korea, Japan and the United States will have to be content with a North Korean state safely under the wings of Chinese military and political protection.
Looking Ahead: North Korea Under Chinese Influence
China is probably the only nation capable of stabilizing North Korea, and I suspect that potential is already being put into place right now. Beijing will have already prepared strategies for such an eventuality, all it needs to do is carry them out. This means that the North Korean problem is likely to be solved, barring pockets of intense, mainly financial related negotiations, in fairly short order. I expect a Kim Pyong-Il and Kim Yo-Jong duopoly to emerge, with gradual moves to slowly move North Korea into normalization. China is well positioned to provide immediate food, medical and energy to North Korea, with a well-known capability for logistics and infrastructure development. Russia too, has a strategic border and crossing with North Korea and can introduce goods from Eurasia. The United States will lend a hand by reducing certain sanctions.
Ultimately, the borders and geography will remain the same and North Korea will continue as a sovereign state. But over time, trade and investment will start to take effect, and opportunities for South Korean and Japanese commercial interests to get involved. North Korea will become a valued member of the Belt & Road Initiative. Should Kim’s demise be confirmed, North Korea will emerge as a foreign investment hotspot by 2025. In which case – stay tuned.
- Russia, South Korea Look At East Asia Railway Union Transiting North Korea
- Vladivostok: The Russian Port Serving The Belt & Road’s North-East Asian Axis
- DPRK Business Monthly: March 2020
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates. He has visited North Korea numerous times and has assisted North Korean trading companies establish operations in China in the past. He has also written extensively concerning North Korean potential for reintegration into North-East Asia and was Vice-Chair of the Business Development Group within the Greater Tumen Initiative, a UNDP backed organisation assisting with North Korean ties with China, Russia and South Korea from 2007-2012. Contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us at www.dezshira.com