Kim Jong Il Supine, the Opining Commences: Two Doomsday Op-Eds

By | December 20, 2011 | No Comments

Given that, according to Chinese reporters, the mad dash to build apartments in Pyongyang in time for 2012 has hardly slackened on account of Kim Jong Il’s death, the immense Huichon Dam in North Korea might also still be under construction today.

But to many commentators outside of East Asia, the dam has already broken: North Korea is on its way towards rapid collapse, and China must choose to either absorb North Korea as a new province or sanction the DPRK heavily and then get out of the way as South Korean and American troops, supported by Japanese technicians and bases, roll up the peninsula.

That, at least, is the idea given in two prime editorials laid out, respectively, by Victor Cha, who seems primed for a comeback in any given Republican administration in Washington, and former TED fellow and LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) founder Adrian Hong.  Both men can lay claim to a kind of devoted constituency in the United States, but, viewed from China, these are precisely the kind of editorials that make one realize in what a fantasy bubble so many analysts are living.

Victor Cha, “China’s Newest Province?”, New York Times, December 20, 2011.

Adrian Hong, “How to Free North Korea,” Foreign Policy, December 19, 2011.

My somewhat gruff take on both of these op-eds should be turning up at some point in the rather link-rich and wonderfully abrasive comments thread on this post at the recently-reinvigorated site One Free Korea.  Suffice it to say that Cha completely ignores any possibility of North Korean resistance to Chinese influence, let alone takeover of the DPRK, resting comfortably along assumptions laid out by Robert D. Kaplan in an influential October 2006 Atlantic article (“When North Korea Falls”) which asserted that China could, and would, essentially have its way with North Korea.

These assumptions of Chinese omnipotence have only grown with the PRC’s emergence from various global financial collapses and its hurdling over competitors like Japan and Germany in various economic metrics: Why doubt that the PLA could mass itself into two huge clusters in Jilin and Liaoning provinces and then march straight to Pyongyang, occupying cities and feeding starving babies as they went?

One would think that any well-grounded assertion of a Chinese takeover of North Korea would at least rest on the idea that such a takeover has happened before, because it has, from 1950-1958, during the Korean War and the five-year aftermath.  But hearkening back to the past would take a bit of work, possibly even some original historical research, and a bit more thought than most have time for.  Better to simply assert, as Cha does, that Xi Jinping’s early tenure as head of the PRC is going to be faced with a choice between the DPRK as his squalid new orphan-child and respectability on the global stage (while North Korea threatens Beijing with nuclear weapons, but that’s all very hush-hush), pick up a few plaudits from one’s constituents, and get on to the next banquet or teleconference.

Reading Adrian Hong’s occasionally coherent prescription for change in North Korea from a Chinese perspective, or with the realities of Chinese foreign policy in mind, is even  more jarring.  It is one thing to remind readers that North Korea is full of prison camps — it is, that’s undeniable, even Lisa Ling was able to find out about it on Google after her trip to the DPRK — but it is another thing entirely to posture as an agent of moral courage for saying so.  The missionary approach to North Korea and its relations with China is simply that China needs to remove all the roadblocks to North Korea’s collapse; that’s it.  We do not need to explore kinship or shared interests between the two socialist people’s republics, the argument would run, because the political culture of both states is fundamentally false, grafted on, and creates a form of repugnant slavery.  Stated less extremely, China is expected to be grown up enough, and far enough beyond the Cold War neuroses, to step back and let “rollback” have its way with the DPRK, assuming that such a collapse would prompt no serious questions about the domestic legitimacy of Chinese Communist Party governance.  There is very little moral courage required in calling for China to, as Hong does in a staggered way throughout his piece, quit the Six Party Talks, severely sanction North Korea, accept a secret deal that honors mining contracts in post-unification northern Korea, help to transit North Korean refugees to Mongolia, help put the North Korean leadership into exile, and then accept South Korean assurances that none of this will impact the stability of the region or the peninsula, because there is no hope of any of these things happening in the Chinese context in the near term.

The salient question (“How might China be convinced, changed, or otherwise motivated to see things our way on the North Korea question?”) cannot be answered without recourse to force of various kinds.  Persuasion of China, shaping of Chinese public opinion, integration with and acceleration of the Chinese drive to change North Korea from the inside out and in its own slow but sedulous — and yes, often very nakedly mercantile and sexist — way is never considered as a viable option.

Perhaps there is no room for any gradualism with this particular issue and China, too, will begin to feel the burden of speed.  But that speed seems likely to be exerted in the service of change and modernization of the North Korean economy and society along Chinese lines, not in the absolute fracture and destruction of the North Korean system.

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  1. Adam. North Korean resistance to PRC or even takeover of DPROK. Couldn’t agree more, but would also like some supporting discussion or evidence on this particular take.

    While I can no longer pull up the link, know for certain the the PLA has never been very successful forging links with its NK equivalent. On occassion, the NK has also indulged in a bit of smoke and mirrors theatre to keep Beijing guessing.

    Two things are certain for Koreans generally, irrespective of which side of the DMZ the are located.

    Dislike for Japan for its brutal colonisation of the Peninsula, and here NK can occupy the high moral ground.

    Dislike of China for its suspected empire ambitions (additional access to the Pacific) and, to be honest, a majority of Koreans simply look down on the Chinese. Sort of like folk who wear smelly socks. Need I expand on the hygiene/etiquette point.

  2. Which link are you missing there, KT?

    There was a nice big banquet in Pyongyang (very big by Sino-NK standards, perhaps about as big as the one for Wen Jiabao in 2009) about a week before Kim’s death which was mainly for KPA-PLA shoulder rubbing. Not sure how functional those friendships truly are, but I think they do exist. And men like the distinguished General O have personal ties/experience in Manchuria way back in the day (during and prior to the Korean War) which counts for something. New cadre in KPA or younger officers, however, might have very ifferent views.

    Absolutely correct on the distain for Japan, and the dislike of China generally.

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