There is little room for nuance in our view of North Korea. State television parades sobbing citizens and soldiers apparently convulsed with grief at the loss of Kim Jong-il. Western commentators dismiss these scenes as propaganda. Much of this display is certainly ritual, enacted for the camera and for watching comrades and informers. To fail to grieve for the loss of the “dear leader” is a poor career move. But for some the emotions may be real enough: the regime has cultivated in the people an intense gratitude to the Kim family, from the hero-founder Kim Il-sung, whose centenary will be celebrated next year, to his grandson, Kim Jong-un.
Viewed from Beijing, these displays are easier to read: the death of Mao Zed-ong, whose tyrannical gifts were more than equal to those of the Kim dynasty, sparked similar scenes in China. Mao has never been dethroned as the regime’s founding father, but as Beijing struggles to maintain its own internal stability, the question it asks of its troublesome neighbour is: will North Korea follow the Chinese path to reform?
In China, Deng Xiaoping was waiting in the wings, a military and political veteran who triumphed over Mao by outliving him and doggedly undoing his legacy. North Koreans, instead, are expected to transfer their affections to a chubby 28-year-old who was catapulted to four-star general status in September last year. The fact remains that, beyond thcachet of his DNA, Kim Jong-un, third son of Kim Jong-il, has no military or political heft. Whether he has any interest in reform is impossible to gauge. He will depend on the support of military and the party for his power.
Planning for this transition has been under way since Kim Jong-il’s stroke in 2008. China has muted its irritation at North Korea’s repeated provocations and stepped up economic relations as a buffer against any derailment of the succession planning. The Chinese army has plans to intervene in North Korea in the event of a breakdown. But Beijing has no desire to cope with a flood of refugees across its border, or to risk the intervention from US-backed South Korea that a collapse in the north could provoke.
For now, though, China has little cho-ice but to nudge the regime towards the kind of transformational reforms that Deng Xiaoping launched after the death of Mao. A leadership change offers the regime an opportunity to shape a new narrative, and China’s experience till now shows that economic reform need not threaten authoritarian power. To date, though, Pyongyang has shown only limited enthusiasm for the Chinese model. Without more radical reform, the enormous economic gap between North Korea and its neighbours will only grow, and keep it isolated and paranoid.
North Korean dependency on China is stark: China provides 90% of the investment and accounts for 80% of North Korea’s trade. Chinese businesses have invested in factories in North Korea’s economic development zones, and exp-orts of iron ore and coal to China from North Korea are important earners.
For both Beijing and Pyongyang, this dependency is a mixed blessing. South Korea, Japan and the US may be the bogeymen invoked to frighten North Korean children, but North Korea is also wary of becoming an economic colony of its giant neighbour. North Korea’s main international weapon is blackmail: waving its nuclear capability in the face of the US and threatening China with instability. It works, after a fashion, but it’s not a recipe for early reform.