Will Post-Kim Jong-il N. Korea Quicken Reform?
By Sunny Lee
Korea Times Correspondent
BEIJING ― Christopher Hill was prudent. Before his departure for Pyongyang Wednesday, the seasoned American top nuclear envoy set the tone for his mission. He told reporters in Seoul that the negotiations to persuade the North to return to the disarmament process would be “tough.” That squared well with people’s subdued expectation.
Yet, will he eventually succeed in his mission? Surprisingly, one immediate “yes” comes from China. “I think Hill’s trip will bear fruit,” said Prof. Zhu Feng, a well-known Chinese expert on security matters relating to the Korean Peninsula.
According to Zhu, who teaches at China’s elite Peking University, Pyongyang is likely to accept the nuclear verification demand by Washington. “To do that, America will first lower its demand for the scope of the verification,” he said.
Why would America do that? “It’s because Washington doesn’t want to see the collapse of the six-way multinational framework at a time when it undergoes its administration change,” he explained.
Pyongyang, for its part, also doesn’t want to see its multi-year investment in the nuclear bargain suddenly evaporate into thin air, without laying gold eggs of huge economic kickbacks. After all, it was Pyongyang this week that invited Hill to come.
Hill’s trip to Pyongyang comes amid reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may be seriously ill. Zhu said the scenario of Kim’s death opens the door for reform and opening-up of the reclusive nation. “It’s not because those who may take over power after Kim’s death is necessarily more reform-oriented, but it is because they are likely to be less powerful than Kim. The country won’t be as tightly controlled as it was under Kim. In that case, there is more room for reforms,” he said.
The outcome of North Korea nuclear talks also hinges on who will become the next president of the United States. “I think it won’t be a problem for Obama to become the president. McCain, for one thing, is too old for the job,” Zhu said.
During the election campaign and the last week’s presidential debate, Obama on multiple occasions said he is willing to talk directly with Kim Jong-il to resolve the nuclear deadlock. Zhu, however, doubts its materialization. “The chances of Obama visiting North Korea are about half and half, standing at 50 percent. That is already good enough. Obama may personally want to meet Kim Jong-il. But once he becomes the president, his actions will be more determined by domestic politics, which doesn’t favor it,” he said.
China’s Ambition in Post-Kim N. Korea
North Korean leader Kim’s alleged suffering of a stroke in August set off global murmurs that his drawn-out illness could destabilize the Korean Peninsula. That worry has also blazed a firestorm of theorizing and predictions in South Korea on what would happen to a North Korea that no longer has the “Dear Leader.”
A view that has gained particularly keen attention was the role of China. Some view that China is likely to send in troops to North Korea so as to prevent the destabilization of its northeastern region that borders North Korea. China had “hands-on experience” of such during the 1990s when a flood of North Korean refugees rushed into the region. China may also set up a puppet regime in North Korea that essentially receives directions from Beijing, the argument goes.
Chinese scholars, in an earlier article on this newspaper, titled “Chinese Scholars Snub Western View on Post-Kim N. Korea,” all refuted the view, saying China won’t unilaterally intervene, but will work within the international framework such as the United Nations.
After the piece went to press, however, it created some commotion among a handful of readers and China observers who argued that the Chinese scholars essentially echoed the Communist government’s officially sanctioned views on the sensitive issue and that China actually harbors some intentions to intervene in North Korea in case Kim dies.
“That’s nonsense. I don’t understand why they continue to insist on it. China doesn’t have territorial ambitions on North Korea,” Zhu said.
“It’s Korea that have such. People in South Korea, including politicians, argue that Manchuria belongs to Korea,” he said.
“China is not such a closed country as it was before. The government is very busy minding other tasks. They pay little attention to what we scholars say, particularly ones published in foreign English newspapers,” he said.
Zhu said South Korea has a good number of scholars on China. “The problem is not the lack of China research, but the academic community in Korea. Most influential scholars and those who have ties with the government policy were educated in the United States. China experts in Korea who were educated in China don’t have much influence in the Korean society. That skews the view on China.”
He added that the notion that China may intervene in the post-Kim North Korea was initially propositioned by Western scholars and was later adopted by Korean scholars who were trained in the United States.
China-North Korea Ties
Another Chinese scholar, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the possibility of China’s sending in troops to post-Kim North Korea is “absolutely nil.”
“China will calculate first whether sending in troops will be beneficial or not, including what impact it will have. We are no fools. China is not a superpower yet compared with the United States. If China does so, the United States won’t sit around. China is also working very hard these days to improve its international image. If China does so, there will a barrage of international condemnation. China doesn’t have enough reason to jeopardize its image,” he said, adding China also learned the lesson of “non-intervention” by watching how the superpower U.S. got bogged down in Iraq, paying handsomely, after entering the foreign territory.
The scholar also said that the international community greatly misunderstands the dynamics between China and North Korea. “It is very subtle. North Korea turns to China in times of need. China accommodates it. To the outside, it is even seen as the closest relationship on earth. But after China established diplomatic relations with South Korea 1992, there was even an anti-China group in North Korea. North Korea also stationed more troops along its border with China,” he said.
He also added that Chinese scholars who visit North Korea are monitored by the national security apparatus, while those who visit South Korea are not. “That’s the subtlety of the two countries’ relationship that people outside don’t know.”
However, he also said that there is indeed a possibility that China may consider sending troops to North Korea. “Let’s say there are two rival factions competing each other in post-Kim North Korea, and each claims to be the ‘legitimate successor’ to Kim. Then, one of them calls on China to intervene. That will give a legitimate reason for China to intervene. But even then, China will weigh heavily whether doing so will be beneficial or not. And the answer is clearly negative. Especially the chance for troops to move in is absolutely zero,” he said.
If Chinese scholars are telling the truth, then why do some scholars raise a red flag, questioning their credibility?
In a sense, the questions on the credibility of the Chinese scholars comes from the perceived lack of academic independence in the nation, which often visibly manifests, for example, in international conferences where Chinese academics essentially represent the government’s point of view. Broadly, it is also part of China’s overall credibility in the international community, which suspects China is sometimes not telling the whole truth, as seen in the recent food scare in which a Chinese newspaper Southern Weekend editor Fu Jianfeng exposed on his blog that the Chinese authorities knew about the melamine-tainted infant milk early on, but didn’t disclose it for fear of its negative impact on the Olympics.