China’s Pragmatic Approach to the North Korean Problem: Andrei Lankov on What China Wants

By | April 11, 2012 | 4 Comments

Andrei Lankov | Image: NKnet

Andrei Lankov | Image: NKnet

For North Korea watchers and close followers of China’s ties to North Korea, the existence of a “special relationship” between Pyongyang and Beijing practically goes without saying.  After all, with the possible exception of Pakistan (more here and here and here), North Korea is the only country with whom China has signed a formal alliance treaty.  However, given the scant regard that North Korea sometimes grants to formal agreements, the ability to “look beyond the paper” allows for a more candid appraisal of North Korea’s relationship with China.  Among the most realistic, substantive, and (thank God) voluble providers of such candor is Andrei Lankov. 

By using original sources like the Rodong Sinmun, contacts along the Chinese-North Korean frontier, and frank Track-2 discussions with Chinese officials and scholars, Lankov presents what he reasons to be an assessment of Sino-North Korean relations that is as close to truth as one can get when dealing with North Korea – an endeavor that typically requires a healthy dose of educated guesswork.  At a lecture Tuesday night, hosted by the Royal Asiatic Society – Korea Branch at the Somerset Hotel in Seoul, the Kookmin University professor and prolific author swooped in on Sino-NK relations in characteristic Lankovian manner – highly animated and energetic with plenty of hand movements – during his speech entitled “What Does China Want in North Korea, and What can be Don’t About This?”   

How do we know that Lankov was so animated? Because Sino-NK’s Assistant Editor, Yonsei University graduate student and Seoul-dweller Steven Denney, was there. His account of the event follows.  – Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

China’s Pragmatic Approach to the North Korean Problem:  Andrei Lankov on What China Wants

by Steven Denney

Lankov is a master of analytical detail, but he sets the stage with a sweeping statement: there is, he said, a noticeable divergence in North Korea opinion towards China compared to times past. China is no longer portrayed as a neighbor worth emulating or respecting.  In North Korea, the Chinese are blasted for deviating from the right socialist path and have consequently become “dangerous and bad.” (This conclusion according to Lankov’s reading of the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece for the Korean Workers’ Party.)  China, Lankov indicates, is fully aware of this disdain, but it also knows that North Korea is not likely to stay afloat much longer.  According to Lankov’s Track-2 closed-door rendezvous with Chinese officials, unification under Seoul’s control is likely if not inevitable.

Under the status quo, China is said to desire three things:  stability, a divided Korea (buffer zone) and a nuclear free peninsula.  However, as Lankov highlights throughout his lecture, this position is soon to become implausible.  China will be forced to prioritize:  Does China want stability or a divided peninsula?  Although the nuclear issue, an arms race in Northeast Asia notwithstanding, is not likely to become problematic for China, stability and division are likely to become mutually exclusive.

The “Great Socialist Divergence” (author’s phrase), and the increasing likelihood of regime collapse in North Korea, will force China into a situation where it will have to choose between a pragmatic compromise allowing unification under Seoul or an alternative strategy whereby China maintains division by establishing a Chinese satellite state to fill the political vacuum that would ensue following regime collapse. [In a remarkable essay published in Huanqiu Shibao on April 10, Zhang Liangui, one of China's top North Korea analysts, begins precisely to unpack alternatives for China which edge things closer to DPRK collapse.-  Editor]

Lankov’s appraisal of Sino-North Korean relations takes into account the changing internal conditions within North Korea and the effect on policy choices open to China and what the most likely path China is set to take in order to answer the question: What does China want?

Economic Interest:  an Unusual Inverse |  Although China dominates North Korea’s external trade, North Korea makes up an insignificant part of China’s trade.  Typically the trade asymmetry between China and North Korea would give Beijing an enormous amount of leverage over Pyongyang, the actual relationship shows an inverse effect.  Contrary to what Albert Hirschman might predict, “China doesn’t have leverage when it comes to dealing with North Korea.  What is has is not a lever, but rather a hammer,” reads a PPT slide glaring behind Lankov.  It continues, “China can knock North Korea unconscious if it wishes, but it cannot really change its behavior.”  The absence of a “lever” is further substantiated by the observation that sanctions do not and will not change the behavior of the elites in North Korea.

The result for China is a situation well-spoken for by Joseph Heller:  Support North Korea materially and diplomatically and perpetuate the continuation of a regime that rules over the state most capable of destabilizing Northeast China, thus giving it leverage over Beijing; or, on the other side of the one-sided coin: cut support and watch as a nuclear “rogue state” slips into chaos, precipitating a refugee crisis certain to cause social and economic problems in the Chinese border provinces.  Perhaps most alarming, the latter crisis situation sends a de facto invitation to American troops to roll up, once again, to the Yalu River.

Lankov then asserts a kind of sliding scale of value from Beijing’s perspective: “North Korea is a strategic asset for China, but the rule of this asset is not particularly high and diminishes as time goes by.”  China will only give the limited amount of support necessary to avoid seeing American GIs planted too close for comfort.  The Yalu is neither wide nor deep enough to satisfy China’s need to feel secure from an American presence in what is now North Korea.

Time’s Up: Serious and Unpleasant Change in North Korea is Forthcoming |  The status quo in North Korea, according to Lankov, is not in any condition that favors the type of gradualist economic reforms, a la Deng Xiaping, that some predict is on the docket.  The situation as it stands (or as it crumbles) is as follows, according to Lankov:

1. The North Korea system is “un-reformable.”  Despite some market activity, significant reform will bring instability and will thus be avoided.
2. Internal transformation is producing little change.
3. Given one and two, the end in North Korea will be sudden and violent.

In other words, North Korea is not the USSR or Eastern Europe and is not going to follow a similar reform path that Gorbachev pushed through in the Soviet Union, nor is it going to follow a path of relatively peaceful economic and political liberalization that took place in the former Soviet republics.  It follows, according to Lankov’s logic, that the fall of Kim Jong-un and his cadres from power will precipitate unification of the Korean peninsula.

Korean Unification:  Not a Problem for a Pragmatic China |  In arriving at the topic of unification, Lankov has what is perhaps the most insightful (“insight” not being conflated here with “accuracy” as regards the endlessly speculative topic of North Korea and unification) and pertinent analysis regarding the central question listed in the lecture title:  What does China want?

Having raised the question, Lankov feints back to Seoul for a moment.  From a South Korean perspective (perhaps the most important but often overshadowed) Lankov identifies two important likely courses of action Seoul would take in the event of regime collapse and/or social unrest in Pyongyang.

1. Immediate intervention by South Korea in the case of instability in North Korea is becoming a real possibility. This has been seemingly confirmed by other sources.
2. The South Korean public will approve of intervention in a non-violent “velvet revolution.” In such a scenario, the regime-opposing North Koreans will welcome South Korean tanks flying the taehanminkuk.

In the case of pending Korean unification following regime collapse in North Korea, how will Beijing react?  Will Hu Jintao & Co. oppose the unification of Korea under Seoul?  Given that a pro-Chinese satellite state (perhaps something similar to what Victor Cha argues may already exist), the alternative to a unified Korean peninsula under a government in Seoul is highly problematic for China.  The concurrent rise in Korean nationalism could cause a “conflict” (of whatever scale and method) that forces China into a situation whereby the PRC essentially has to abandon the “peaceful rise” narrative it has been so assiduously cultivating for the last decade.  Thus, Lankov believes that the Chinese will likely accept a unified Korea peninsula under a Seoul-based government.  A unified Korea under Seoul would satisfy China’s need for stability without which China faces possible economic and social disruptions.

According to Lankov, a unified Korea with Seoul as the capital is likely to be accepted by China. | Image: Korea Report

Conditions for Unification:  the “Two No’s” and Three Conditions |  Getting more specific on the issue of what China wants, Lankov lays out the “two no’s” and three conditions which China would want satisfied for a Korea unified under Seoul.  First, the Two No’s:

NO #1:  Beijing would not stand for the peninsula becoming a strategic fortress for the US against China.  The Korean peninsula being the traditional invasion route into China, Beijing would not tolerate American troops sitting ready across the Yalu.  Using troops for stabilization is one thing.  US bases in P’yonganbuk-do is another matter.

NO #2:  A unified Korea must not endanger China’s territorial integrity due to issues of irredentism or disruptive Korean nationalism.

In order to satisfy China’ security concerns,  a la the Two No’s, there are three conditions which Lankov states must be meet by Seoul and Washington.

1. No increase in the number of US troops on the peninsula.
2. Acceptance of current Sino-North Korean borders.
3. Acceptance of current Chinese economic interests and concessions (see: SEZs in North Korea).

Possibility for Internationalization:  Chinese on the Peninsula |  In order to cover all his bases, so to speak, Lankov leaves room in his analysis for the possibility that Seoul remains ambivalent, necessitating intervention by the other major powers, viz. China, the US and the UN.  In the case of South Korean ambivalence towards action north of the 38th parallel, Lankov sees a joint-peace keeping operation (PRC-ROK-US) a possibility.  In the case of joint-operation taking place, Lankov insists that it be sanctioned by the UN, even if most peacekeeping forces in North Korea are sporting yellow stars on their uniforms.

What China Wants:  Lankov’s Signing Off Message | During the Q&A session, Lankov makes a few additional observations and gives some further analysis related to North Korea and the (un)likelihood of Kim Jong-un continued rule.  The first comment, a statement on Russia position under the status quo, reveals Moscow’s interest in maintaining a stable, divided and non-nuclear Korean peninsula as in Russia’s best interest – identical to China’s position under that status quo.

Support: here today, gone tomorrow? | Image: chinaSMACK

The second comment, Lankov’s assessment of regime legitimacy, deals more directly with evolution of geopolitical realities and the effect this has on China’s ability to continue to fulfill the “three desires” under the status quo. The professor holds that the biggest threat to Kim Jong-un and the North Korean leadership does not come from any outside threat or possible intra-regime power schism but from the people of North Korea.  Lankov reminded his audience that the average citizen of the Hermit Kingdom, one of Asia’s poorest countries, are not oblivious to their own plight and know very well of the “good life” enjoyed by their southern brethren.  This necessitates, as Joshua Stanton has pointed out in more detail, that the North Korean government rule via cruelty and fear.  Lankov conveys the notion that the leadership in Pyongyang is becoming increasingly paranoid and is now cracking down against political dissent more harshly than it had in the past.  This analysis, of course, supports his prognosis about the prospects of sustained rule by the North Korean leadership:  time is running out.

It could thus be said that what China actually wants – a continuation of the status quo – it cannot have and will thus be required to make a pragmatic concession in the name of stability.  American strategic insanity notwithstanding, it can be safely assumed that nuclear weapons will remain off the peninsula.  Under this scenario, then, China gets two out of three: stability (maintained by allowing Korean unification under Seoul’s control) and a non-nuclear peninsula.

Two out of three?  “Ain’t bad,” according to Alanis Morissette.

4 Comments

  1. I think Lankov’s view is quite different from others quoted here before – can’t remember them in detail, but they seemed to suggest that North Korea were much more stable than what had been predicted several times during the past two decades.

    Any views from SinoNK, more or less in agreement with or counter to Lankov’s?

  2. As Lankov will even tell you (in person or in writing),”I don’t know for sure, but ….” Since I’ve never been North of the 38th, nor do I know of anyone who speaks with authority on the prospects for social transformation, I tend to err on the side of Cumings. He doesn’t think the party is ending anytime soon. And hasn’t Aidan Foster-Carter’s reputation been under the gun since his prediction of downfall?

    In a conversation I was having with a prominent Yonsei professor (interview forthcoming), he said that because appeasing the military and satisfying the people’s demand for food, energy and a stable economy are mutually exclusive, Kim Jong-un’s inability to satisfy the latter will be his biggest problem (and potential downfall) in the short-term. Perhaps that’s nothing incredibly insightful, but it shows that soon-to-fall is relatively popular.

    Perhaps Gladwell’s Tipping Point hypothesis is best here. Yonsei friend and linguist here at SinoNK, Joe Litt, had a wonderful little piece about this.

  3. I happen to believe that a person could read all day long, pretty much every day, and travel through South Korea, Japan, northeast China, and the US West Coast as well as the Russian Far East (and oh yes, within the DPRK extensively, including Rason) with a battery of expert consciousnesses of Andrei Lankov, Scott Snyder, Charles Armstrong, etc., and Douglas MacArthur and Peng Dehuai perched on your shoulders (or plugged into your ear and Google glasses — that is, augmented reality) and still not know what was going to happen. We still don’t know what languages Kim Jong Un really speaks! Talk about a “birther” controversy.

  4. Oh, no – not a (positive) Gladwell reference!

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