In connection with Beijing's dissatisfaction and annoyance with North Korea’s brinkmanship tactics, there was a story in the foreign media not long ago that China might secretly support anti-Kim Jong Un forces. There was even a story that China has plans to establish a Kim Jong Nam regime in place of Kim Jong Un’s. The claims arose even though inside information on the North Korean leadership is difficult to obtain. There are, in fact, no grounds for such claims.
It is true, though, that China is very disappointed in North Korea. It is only natural for China to dislike the nuclear development that North Korea is pursuing. This is because North Korean nukes raise the possibility of nuclear proliferation in the Northeastern Asia region generally and threaten the long-term interests of China, an officially acknowledged nuclear power.
Moreover, from China’s standpoint, the crisis that North Korea has created on the Korean peninsula is undesirable. North Korea has a habit of heightening tensions and creating crises to receive more support from the international community. And since China needs long-term stable economic growth, North Korea’s risky strategies are a great burden.
China now frowns upon North Korea for not reforming its regime and not opening its doors to the outside world. From China’s point of view, Kim Jong Un’s current policies will lead North Korea to a future collapse.
But even though China finds Kim Jong Un’s regime disagreeable, China feels that it does not have to confront North Korea.
Stable, divided peninsula
What China most desires is a stable and divided Korean peninsula. In China's view, North Korea is an important buffer zone. What is more, if a revolution or coup d’état in North Korea creates a state of chaos and anarchy, China will feel that its interests are greatly threatened. But China is also aware that interfering with North Korea's internal politics could bring negative results.
So despite its discontent with Kim Jong Un’s policies, China continues to provide aid to the North and seeks to avoid policies that could cause a crisis in the North Korean regime.
Of course, China consistently pressures North Korea. China could someday reduce its aid to the North if its dissatisfaction with its neighbor’s policies deepens, and could even control or limit its trade with the North as well, if necessary. These kinds of pressure cannot be seen as sound methods, though, and it is unlikely that China will put more intense pressure on North Korea than it already does.
Therefore, it is difficult at this stage to believe foreign media speculations that China might support some kind of conspiracy or coup d’état in North Korea. China wants the Korean peninsula to remain stable, and divided.
Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.