Scott Snyder: NK Should Consider the US as a Strategic Counterweight to Chinese Hugs, and Other Analysis

By | December 23, 2011 | No Comments

Obviously a great deal has been written in the past few days which deserves discussion.

Scott Snyder, probably the foremost scholarly voice on Sino-North Korean relations (though he has plenty of competition — just check the sidebar of this blog) has an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations which is worth reading in full.  Of particular interest to our pursuit of things Sino-North Korean is this element:

Q: How are North Korea’s relations with China and the United States?

Snyder: North Korea is economically almost completely dependent on China and that has resulted in a closer political relationship, but as far as I can see it is because the Chinese are hugging the North Koreans. Not necessarily because the North Koreans are hugging the Chinese back. And in fact it’s arguable that there is nothing that North Korea would like more than for the U.S. to come in as a kind of strategic counterweight to China. But the nuclear issue remains as a major, really inescapable sticking point.

Armed with pandas, dragons, empty cannon shots, empty fortresses, Peking opera and ping-pong balls, analysts of Chinese foreign policy have no paucity of metaphors at their disposal, but Snyder’s is particularly good.  And he’s quite correct, of course.  The evidence can be seen in the mere fact that no sooner had Kim Jong-il developed a strong interest in developing stronger ties with China than he began giving things away to the Russians, like oil pipeline transit rights and railroad linkages to Europe.  Where, the Chinese must be wondering, is his interest in linking up with our magnificent 17-nation high-speed rail extravaganza?  Kim was not interested in helping China to fulfill its “great power [大国]” dream, and it seems unlikely that his successors (the plural is here intentional, in the sense of the German Nachfolger) will change that basic course.

Rudiger Frank‘s essay on the re-ascension of the Workers’ Party in Korean politics is going to be cited everywhere, with good reason, but his historical discussion is what interests us in particular:

In Korea, as elsewhere, personal ambition can override rationality. The slightest power vacuum can create an irresistible temptation to fill it. It is thus not surprising that in official KCNA announcements, the succession by Kim Jong Un is repeated like a mantra.

China seems to understand that game and is more than willing to contribute its share. Hu Jintao himself visited the North Korean embassy and expressed his support for Kim Jong Un. This is an important signal. It tells the people of North Korea that aid will keep coming, and smashes the hopes of Chinese backing for potential rebels. Unlike in 1956, when China supported the Yan’an faction in its failed coup against Kim Il Sung, Beijing’s top priority now is to maintain stability. Anything else comes later. There might be hopes that the young Kim Jong Un can be manipulated; the Soviets harbored the same illusion about a 33-year-old Kim Il Sung in 1945.

Charles Kraus and the present author are working hard to fill the gap in North Korean-Chinese relations prior to 1956; that history has largely focused on the dynamics of Korean War origins and questions about Soviet control over Pyongyang’s foreign policy direction.  Rudiger Frank here deploys the 1956 example (the context for which is discussed here authoritatively by James Person at the North Korean International Documentation Project).  All we can say is that we are working as fast and as throughly as we can, presently in China and Washington, D.C., to learn more about the background to the 1956 purge of the “Yanan Faction” from the Pyongyang court.  In many ways, it is the salient counterpoint to any wild-uppercut accusations today that Beijing is somehow treating North Korea as a “puppet state” or purely dictating policy (as opposed to influencing policy, which seems to be the whole point of diplomacy) for Pyongyang.

Austin Ramzy, a Time reporter in Beijing with a Midwestern background and degrees from Middlebury and UC-Berkeley, breaks down “China’s Stake in a Stable North Korea.” This piece has a lot to recommend it, including quotes from several of the top thinkers on  Sino-North Korean relations like Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the International Crisis Group in Beijing (see the SinoNK sidebar for her home page) and the coveted Chinese pontificator on things Sino-North Korean (Sinonkish, to coin an adjective?) Zhu Feng:

Of particular concern to China is whether Kim’s death will make North Korea, long a source of instability in the region, even more unpredictable. “No one should say the possibility will be high for North Korea to implode, but no one can neglect the potential risk of that sort of domestic tension and unrest,” says Zhu Feng, an international-relations scholar at Peking University. The transition to the deceased dictator’s appointed heir, his third son Kim Jong Un, also comes in a year when China is expected to carry out its own long-planned change of top leaders, adding to the concerns in Beijing. “The Chinese have always prioritized stability and particularly at this moment want nothing to interfere with their own preparations for leadership transition,” says Kleine-Ahlbrandt.

Ramzy also mentions the role of Chinese weapon supplies to North Korea (usually glossed over; virtually no open-source information about this subject is available in China) and waxes historical, including some discussion of the Korean War, the death of Mao Zedong’s son, Mao Anying, in an American air raid in Korea, and the visit of Premier Wen Jiabao to Anying’s grave in October 2009 (not 2010 as Ramzy incorrectly notes).   [For a ridiculous number of links and information from Chinese media and KCNA about Mao Anying and Korean War commemorations in both China and the DPRK in June 2010, please see this entry.]

KCNA describes the need for anti-Japanese guerilla fighters in both China and North Korea to keep it in the family.

Huanqiu Shibao puts China’s North Korea diplomacy in regional and international perspective.

Asahi Shimbun reports imply that if either North Korea or China had any nervousness about an ROK-Japanese activist front, the news that the recent Noda Yoshihiko-Lee Myung Bak summit become completely entangled in the issue of Japanese compensation for the Imperial Army’s abduction of “comfort women” World War II seemed to indicate it was misplaced.


No Comments

  1. I don’t know what Snyder means by the North Koreans not hugging China back, if “hugging” means embracing someone in order to get something in return. Sure, the North Koreans might not necessarily love the Chinese (just like American allies might not necessarily love the Americans), but they rely on China for regime survival and without China, they will mostly likely collapse. If this is not “hugging”, I don’t know what is. North Korea is no Myanmar. Myanmar is a good example of embracing the US to balance China’s influence, North Korea is not. Adam is correct though that North Korea is playing China and Russia off against each other. If you were Kim Jong-il (or Jong-un), wouldn’t you?

  2. Juche, very happy to see you back on the boards! Thanks for the comment. I like the Myanmar counter-example in particular. It’s also a good point about rational self-interest. Just because a Kim family member is doing it, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily warped or particularly shrewd. I hope that at some point a person beyond Bruce Cumings (whose work I rather enjoy) would write a much longer analysis of elements of continuity between North Korean foreign policy and that of its predecessor states — Koguryo in particular. Of course, prior to Kim’s death, there were a few rather intriguing stories on KCNA about Parhae, which could also be explored for areas of commonality or inspiration to Pyongyang-DPRK today.

  3. I can’t see the novelty of this. Home deelivry in Argentina has been available from all major supermarkets for the past 10 years You do your shopping on their websites (from any device with Internet access), you account can store your past purchases, your usually preferred products, and it makes it a lot easier because you can customize the online supermarket to show only the products you like or usually purchase. We never ever go to a supermarket.

  4. Absolutely, the relevance of this comment is plain for anyone to see: Each time that I run across something written by Scott Snyder — particularly longer working papers, books, or Comparative Connections summaries — I, too, feel a need to simply stay put at home and give them their due as a reader. Of course one can’t waste time at such junctures to do something as trivial as shopping for groceries!~ Thanks much for the comment and adding to the impetus here to keep charging forward with the research.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.