In an interview with Dan Southerland on Oct. 26, Russian historian and North Korea expert Andrei Lankov, an RFA contributor, discusses China’s support for the North Korean regime, domestic discontent inside North Korea, and why the six-party talks should continue. Here, in part one of the interview, Lankov describes the North Korea-China relationship as an uneasy alliance that both sides need.
Q: Dr. Lankov, welcome back to Radio Free Asia. I want to focus today on Chinese support for North Korea and for the leadership succession in North Korea that’s taking place, and on the question of Chinese influence. Despite the international sanctions that are in place against North Korea, China is showing a lot of signs of support for the succession and for the new young general who is coming up. For example, they have recently sent high-level delegations to Pyongyang. How do you read this? Is it increased support?
A: I would not say it is a dramatic increase in support—maybe a marginal increase. Because China has no choice but to support this succession. China doesn’t want a crisis. Above all, they want stability in Korea; they want a stable Korean peninsula. And they also want a divided Korean people, because North Korea is a buffer zone which helps them to keep U.S. forces in the south ... And now they probably see the succession as a way that will marginally increase the likelihood of stability in the very difficult days which will follow the death of Kim Jong Il.
But we should be clear. This doesn’t mean that China has much sympathy toward North Korea. Frankly, no one likes the North Korean regime, and China is not an exception.
Q: And this is based on your talks with Chinese officials?
A: Yes. They see the North Korean family regime as a joke, as an embarrassment, as completely irrational. They know much better than anybody that the regime has ruined the economy. But they still see it as a lesser evil. And being a sovereign state, they don’t give a damn about anybody’s interests but their own. And I am not sure to what extent we should blame them. This is how sovereign states behave. And they believe that this regime basically serves their own interests—to some extent, at least.
Q: So this means they are assisting North Korea in evading the sanctions, the U.N. sanctions.
A: Yes, of course. And I would say the U.N. sanctions are essentially a joke ... Chinese trade with North Korea is growing remarkably fast. Right now, if you count trade between North and South Korea as international trade, roughly 55 percent of all North Korean trade is with China. And if you don’t count trade between the North and the South, China’s share would be over 80 percent.
Q: South Korean media last year alleged that China has basically locked in North Korea’s mineral resources. They were going to invest, I think, a couple of billion dollars in developing the necessary infrastructure. Is that happening?
A: That’s partially true, partially not. The reports were talking about $10 billion a year, but they were obviously grossly exaggerating. We are talking about a much smaller amount of money. But it’s true that China wants to invest in North Korea’s mining industry, because their policy toward North Korea is largely about geopolitics. It’s about power balance and about the stability of northeast Asia. However, when they look for economic gains, there are essentially only two types of gains they can get from North Korea.
The first is mining. North Korea is not very rich in mineral resources … However, China would be very happy, and is very happy, to acquire mining rights and concessions when dealing with North Korean resources. China probably understands that in the long run the North Korean regime is not sustainable. But if a post-Kim regime emerges in North Korea sooner or later, most of these mining rights will be honored by the next government, even if this is the government of a unified Korea.
So from the Chinese point of view, this is a way to secure long-term control over relatively valuable resources. And there is something else they need in North Korea: infrastructure, above all, access to the Sea of Japan, which is known in Korea as the Eastern Sea. They want a transportation link, because if they can use port facilities on the coast of the Sea of Japan, they can save a lot of money … Now, to ship the stuff they produce, they have to send it by railway or highway to the nearest port, which is about 1,200 km. away. And if they can use North Korean ports, they can save a lot of money on transportation costs.
Q: You mentioned that the regime is probably not sustainable, according to the Chinese analysis. So eventually there has to be some kind of collapse. Is China ready to intervene?
A: China probably understands that in the long run, the current regime is not going to continue forever—that sooner or later it will collapse, and that in all probability this will lead to chaos in the northern part of the Korean peninsula. So right now, the Chinese line is to do everything possible to postpone this collapse by providing North Korea with moderate aid—and some investments, some trade, but largely aid.
However, when this happens—and sooner or later it will happen—China will face a difficult decision. China is considering, and really doesn’t make much secret of it, an intervention, a sort of takeover by a pro-China regime in the northern part of the Korean peninsula. However, we should remember that China doesn’t want this. China would much prefer not to get involved with the crisis, because China understands that this will be costly both in financial and political terms.
Therefore, China probably will be willing to accept an international operation, a multilateral peacekeeping operation—or maybe even some kind of unilateral South Korean operation in the area—as long as their major concerns are taken care of. Their major concern is stability. They would prefer a stable and divided Korea, but they will accept a stable and unified Korea.
However, if South Korea is unwilling to do anything decisive, or if calculations in China change, they will probably intervene. And in this case, we are likely to see a pro-China regime existing there for quite a long time.
Q: The Koreans are famous for resisting foreign intervention. And there’s a lot of anti-Chinese feeling in North Korea. How would the Chinese handle that? They must know that.
A: They know it, and this is one of the reasons they don’t want to get involved. They are quite happy right now to provide some money to keep the regime afloat, but they would prefer not to get involved with a serious crisis.
North Koreans understand that China is the only country right now that provides the regime with vital aid. Most of their aid comes from China, and this is likely to continue in the near future. They also understand that China is the only country which has both the means and probably the need to intervene in North Korean politics, to influence the country’s internal decision-making. And the North Korean elite is not happy about this. Kim Jong Il and his family understand that China needs a separate North Korean state. However, this does not mean that China needs a separate North Korean state run by the Kim family. And though a pro-Chinese coup is not highly likely, it is not improbable.
So, North Koreans try to milk China and get some aid from China, and at the same time the North Korean elites try to make sure that North Korean officials do not get too cozy, too close, too sweet with the Chinese. And there is another factor, which is that at the same time they are being suspicious of China, the North Korean elites—at all levels—understand that in a crisis, China is the only force that will probably save them.
Because if they face a choice between unification and a pro-Chinese regime, they will clearly choose a pro-Chinese regime. In a unified Korea, most of the officials who are now in power, especially top officials, will have no future. But in a pro-Chinese regime, nearly all the people who are now officials will keep their positions.
To be continued . . .