As North Korea contends with what will surely be a difficult and lengthy leadership transition following the death of Kim Jong-il and the accession of his inexperienced third son, the 20-something Kim Jong-un, it is imperative that the new regime obtain the strong support of its closest and most powerful ally, China. This would give it added legitimacy in the eyes of important domestic constituencies, such as the military, and among the international community. More importantly, it would enable the regime to secure access to aid, which will prove vital in the coming months.

Fortunately for the nascent regime of Kim Jong-un and his handlers, the Chinese have been quick to throw their weight behind his succession.

As I mentioned in an earlier piece, the sudden death of Kim Jong-il is expected to place a hold on most external dealings until the internal situation has been sorted. In the short term, the new regime will be primarily concerned with consolidating its power. Consequently, recent negotiations between the DPRK and the United States to revive the Six Party Talks, or for the U.S. to supply food in return for the cessation of uranium enrichment, are likely to stall as the regime turns inwards. The insular approach that will typify North Korea’s foreign policy in the short term, potentially to be punctuated by instances of bellicosity in an effort to wring concessions from a concerned international community, as has been the past norm, will leave the North with little other option than to draw tighter to China as its primary provider of food, money and material resources.

The need to secure adequate foodstuffs is one of the most pressing concerns facing the new regime. Another poor harvest coupled with rising global food prices at the onset of a typically harsh winter threatens a full-blown humanitarian disaster. After years of subsisting on meager diets, with little or no assistance coming from the state, North Koreans have increasingly turned to small, privately owned and operated black markets to scrape together enough food for their families. While these black markets have been tolerated by the state in recent years as they have taken pressure off of beleaguered and failing state institutions and have been instrumental in the survival of the general populace, their existence diminishes the total control exerted by the central government. Indeed, even as the central government reinstated its rationing program, the black market economy continued to grow. As the new regime seeks to regain some modicum of control it will turn to China to attempt to secure enough aid to supplant the black markets and reassert its control over the daily economic lives of its subjects. The prospects for success in this endeavor are highly improbable as the black markets have carved out a considerable niche in the North Korean economy – by some estimates providing as much as 60 percent of the average North Korean’s goods and income. However, the state’s attempts to reassert control will necessitate the new regime to tighten its ties to the Chinese; a step the Chinese leadership will grudgingly take.

It is unclear whether or not the DPRK informed the Chinese of Kim Jong-il’s passing prior to their public announcement. If they did provide early warning, then it is a stunning example of operational security given how the announcement caught every other nation by complete surprise. The positive and rapid response of the Chinese leadership indicates it is likely that limited members had received early notification, but did not take any action in order to enable the DPRK government to ensure the smooth initiation of the succession. While this is the more likely scenario, it is possible that the Chinese received no advance communication regarding Kim Jong-il’s death and despite their subsequent supportive overtones are inwardly seething. However, China maintains significant interest in the stability of the North and would be largely unable and certainly unwilling to respond publicly in any manner other than as it has done. This lack of clarity demonstrates the opacity of both regimes that continues to frustrate outside observers and more importantly, serves as a reminder that North Korea is able to influence Chinese action through what Joseph Nye Jr. calls “the power of weakness”.

This does not mean that China does not benefit by continuing to prop up the North. Through the North it maintains a handy bulwark to distract the attention of the international community, and particularly of the United States, from Chinese activities. Additionally, despite the effects of rapid globalization leading to expanding and vital economic ties to South Korea, Japan and the United States, Beijing still somewhat adheres to the Cold War era need to maintain the North as a “buffer state” in order to prevent what it increasingly sees as Washington’s attempts to surround and contain an expanding China.

However, it is primarily the fear of collapse that drives Chinese policy towards North Korea. It is this fear that grants the North disproportionate power in its relations with its much larger and stronger neighbor. The collapse of North Korea would have disastrous effects on China, particularly if the collapse were sudden. It would result in a humanitarian nightmare with potentially millions of North Korean refugees streaming across the border into China creating domestic chaos in the northeast and necessitating the outlay of many billions of dollars in humanitarian and reconstruction aid. Most dangerously, especially in the event of a sudden collapse, U.S. and ROK military forces would likely cross the 38th parallel in order to secure any nuclear material as well as to offer humanitarian assistance. Depending on what remnants of control remained intact, this could quickly lead to a peninsula-wide conflagration, a scenario no one wants to see. Regardless of the particular scenario, in the event of collapse the Chinese would undoubtedly dispatch military units across the Yalu and Tumen rivers into North Korea in an effort to restore stability. The potential for a Sino-U.S./ROK military clash as both sides rushed into the DPRK would be dangerously high. Finally, should the South successfully absorb the North (it would be a very protracted, painful and costly process, and would certainly require U.S. military involvement), it would leave China ringed by strong U.S. allies containing U.S. military installations, an outcome Beijing is unlikely to find tolerable, further increasing its incentive to quickly enter the North should it collapse.

The DPRK is aware of this dynamic and is able to leverage Chinese fears over the North’s collapse into support. At a time of transition, when collapse is potentially more imminent, North Korea and China will take steps to tighten their relationship and ensure stability.

We have already seen evidence of this in the firm and public support offered by Beijing to the new DPRK regime under Kim Jong-un. China was the first state to offer condolences following the announcement of Kim Jong-il’s death on December 19th. In the same breath, China acknowledged and endorsed Kim Jong-un as his successor. In subsequent statements, Beijing has reiterated its continuing support of the North Korean people under the leadership of Kim Jong-un and the necessity of “maintaining peace and stability on the Peninsula.” On December 20th, Chinese president Hu Jintao, along with an official delegation visited the North Korean embassy in Beijing, offered Chinese condolences and invited Kim Jong-un to Beijing. It would appear that based on Chinese statements of support for the new regime, it expects to pursue a policy of continuity during this time of leadership transition.

It is also worth noting that Beijing has, in previous instances, offered its tacit support for the planned succession of Kim Jong-un and taken step to bolster economic ties between the two nations. Importantly, China stood behind the DPRK during the twin crises of 2010 that resulted from the sinking of the ROK corvette, Cheonan and the later shelling of Yeonpyeong Island – attacks widely thought to have been conducted under the direction of Kim Jong-un as a way of enhancing his reputation among the DPRK military. Furthermore, over the last several years China has increased investment in North Korean mining infrastructure and continues to import iron and coal from the DPRK.

Finally, although Kim Jong-un has yet to travel to Beijing – he was a notable absentee from his father’s entourage in his May 2011 visit (this was, at the time, attributed to Kim Jong-il’s fear that his son would develop power bases independent of the North Korean dictator) – he had previously met in Pyongyang with PRC Central Military Vice Chairman Colonel General Guo Boxiong in 2010. During this meeting, the PLA delegation presented Kim Jong-un with a calligraphy painting which read, “In the same strain,” in reference to his lineage and was widely regarded as an endorsement of his eventual succession on behalf of the PLA.

Chinese support will be a vital resource as the new regime of Kim Jong-un seeks to consolidate its power. Beijing has already taken important steps to demonstrate its continued commitment to the survival of the Kim dynasty and that it stands behind the people of North Korea. However, despite recent rhetoric littered with ideological overtones, China is primarily concerned with and motivated by maintaining a stable status quo. In the short term at least, China will facilitate a smooth succession in any way it can. While this bodes well for the succession of Kim Jong-un, and will certainly ease the transition, many challenges remain. Perhaps the greatest threat to stability on the Korean peninsula is the shroud of uncertainty and unpredictability that continues to conceal the North from the rest of the world. There is a small glimmer of hope, however, that the change in regime will presage reforms which will open the reclusive Hermit Kingdom.

Greg Chaffin is a research assistant for the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London.

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