But the North Korean variety is likely be different from other developmental dictatorships which were so common in East Asia after World War II (China under Deng Xiaoping, South Korea under Park Chung-hee). The North Korean variety will be significantly more repressive and also less reliant on foreign capital investment.
However, there are chances that a ‘developmental dictatorship with North Korean characteristics’ will survive long enough for Kim Jong Un to die a natural death at the helm of the state. But given the great allure of South Korea and the North Korean authorities’ diminishing ability to control its population, a revolutionary collapse of the Kim family regime still seems to be highly likely, something that will stimulate a Chinese response under many circumstances.
If a coup does happen, there are grave doubts about the ability of a non-Kim government to remain in power for any length of time
It has been sometimes argued that a collapse of the Kim family regime will not necessarily lead to unification, especially if being the result of a palace coup. Such a view suggests that any new leaders will likely come from the same social group as those high officials who have for decades controlled the country, and who have virtually no interest in unification. However, if a coup does happen, there are grave doubts about the ability of a non-Kim government to remain in power for any length of time.
One of the major conditions of stability for a potentially unpopular regime is the unity of the elite and perceived willingness of the elite to use unrestricted force to suppress popular discontent. Thus if common people see that the “top 1%” are unified, and if they also assume that any rally or strike will end with ring leaders being shot on the spot or dragged to the torture chambers, the ‘masses’ are almost certain to remain quiet and vent discontent in the privacy of their bedrooms, if at all.
However, any hypothetical palace or military coup will be seen by ordinary North Koreans as an indicator that the elite is not as unified as they may have otherwise thought. Such a development would thus mean potential for all kinds of discontent to emerge, when alternative visions of the future will start to surface. Needless to say, the allure of South Korea will be of decisive significance – after all, by current North Korean standards the South is unbelievably rich, remarkably free, populated by people who speak the same language, and whom are officially considered to be members of the same nation.
Even if the post-Kim government initially has no plan of unification, very soon it will face massive popular pressure pushing it towards unification
So, even if the post-Kim government initially has no plan of unification, very soon it will face massive popular pressure pushing it towards unification. In this regard, it probably makes sense to remind ourselves that the people who took over East Germany after the revolutionary collapse of the old system in 1989 had no intention to unify with West Germany in the near future. However, in merely a few months they had no choice but to revise their position, bowing to increasing popular demand.
However, such a crisis in North Korea – irrespective of whether it will take the shape of a popular uprising (‘Arab Spring’ style), a successful coup, or something else – is almost definitely going to upset China.
China has quite an ambivalent attitude to North Korea and, broadly speaking, the Korean peninsula. It is quite willing to cooperate with Seoul on many important issues, but it never forgets that, at the end of the day, South Korea is an American ally. From the Chinese point of view, North Korea is a vital buffer zone which serves to keep U.S. forces, currently stationed in South Korea, further away from Chinese borders.
The existence of North Korea also gives China some additional diplomatic leverage, since Chinese diplomats are always capable of exploiting and manipulating the frictions between the two Korean states.
Last but not least, China has little reason to be happy about the possible emergence of a unified Korean state, one which will likely be democratic, nationalistic and, probably, allied with the United States.
So far, these considerations have usually been strong enough to override China’s quite serious (and sincere) frustrations vis-a-vis North Korea’s nuclear program. Therefore, when it came to choosing between pushing North Korea hard in hope of achieving denuclearization or maintaining the status quo, China has nearly always preferred the latter.
If North Korea finally does go down in flames, the Chinese reaction is therefore going to be critical. Naturally, it does serve the long-term interests of China to establish a friendly government in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Such a friendly (or, to be more frank, satellite) government will maintain the division of Korea and will also provide China with necessary diplomatic leverage.
It does serve the long-term interests of China to establish a friendly government in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula
Incidentally, one should dismiss the fears of some South Korean nationalists who have talked about the possible annexation of North Korea by China, or the transformation of the entire territory of North Korea into the Chinese province of Chaoxian. For both domestic and international reasons, nothing that dramatic is going to happen. Most likely the Chinese will do what the Soviets did in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s: they will establish a controllable friendly government which will be unable to make any significant political decisions without prior approval of the Chinese ambassador. A North Korean Governor General in everything but name.
For those Chinese who still have an imperialist mindset, such a scenario is likely to be attractive. Fortunately, though, Chinese foreign policy analysts have much more nuanced and realistic attitudes towards the issue. Thus when yours truly discussed such issues with his Chinese contacts, he was told about the likely downsides of such a seemingly attractive solution.
To start with, any Chinese decision to intervene in potential North Korean chaos, by either sending troops and/or weapons – as well as by supporting pro-Chinese factions – is likely to trigger serious worries about the ‘rise of China’ among neighboring countries. If such an intervention happens in Korea, many neighbors – especially those whose relations with Beijing are not especially good – will start worrying that somewhat similar developments might happen in their countries. As a result, these worries are likely to push them towards the United States.
It’s true that some Chinese analysts hope that Beijing will in the long-run manage to establish hegemony over the entire Korean Peninsula, arguing that Americans will sooner or later withdraw from East Asia. However, a hypothetical takeover of North Korea will greatly annoy the South Korean public, whose attitude toward China has so far been quite ambivalent and divided. Such a takeover would thus ensure that the southern part of the Korean Peninsula would remain staunchly pro-American for decades to come. It is even possible (as one smart Chinese observer once pointed out to me) that in South Korean popular nationalist mythology, China will replace Japan as the alleged eternal enemy of Korea.
A hypothetical takeover of North Korea will greatly annoy the South Korean public, whose attitude toward China has so far been quite ambivalent and divided
Third, such a hypothetical takeover is likely to be costly, and there are good reasons to believe that the North Koreans will make difficult puppets (generally speaking, Koreans always make bad puppets). Indeed, the North Korean public will soon start despising any pro-Chinese government the same way common Hungarians and Poles despised their communist governments back in the 1960s, perceiving those rulers as a bunch of shameless pro-Moscow stooges. No matter how successful the pro-Chinese government becomes in improving economic matters and no matter how fast living standards improve, the benchmark for the vast majority of the North Koreans will remain as South Korea, meaning average Northerners will remain unhappy.
If there is a crisis in Korea, there are therefore competing arguments both in favor of a possible Chinese intervention and against it. But of course, inside North Korea there is at least one important social group who – in case of a grave internal crisis or revolution – is likely to be interested in inviting the Chinese: current North Korean officials.
While it is true that North Korean officialdom does not currently much like China and looks at its great neighbor with significant suspicion and mistrust, in case of a crisis such officials will almost certainly see the emergence of a pro-Chinese satellite regime as a lesser evil to a Seoul-led unification of the country. After all, a pro-Chinese puppet regime is almost certain to keep Kim family regime officials in their positions, while in case of unification, many of these people will have reasons to worry whether they will be prosecuted for their alleged role in the massive human rights abuses of the Kim era. Therefore, in spite of their current dislike for China, a massive domestic crisis could make North Korean officials see Beijing as their savior, meaning they may probably beg the Chinese to come.
But the key role in such an unpredictable situation, of course, is going to be played by China.
Decisions are likely to be made at the last moment and thus will greatly depend on the completely unpredictable international situation at the time of the crisis
Due to the contradictions described above, decisions are likely to be made at the last moment and thus will greatly depend on the completely unpredictable international situation at the time of any crisis. There are, however, two major factors which are likely to influence the Chinese attitude toward a crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
First, China’s relations with the United States will be vital. If at the time of crisis in Korea those relations are bad, and if China rightly or wrongly believes that it is surrounded and threatened by the Americans or their allies, Beijing will be far more likely to react to a crisis in Korea by sending tanks across the border. If relations with the United States are however reasonably good, Beijing will probably think twice before taking such a risky and expensive decision.
The second variable is South Korea’s attitude toward the crisis. If the Seoul administration is willing to be flexible and negotiate some concessions about the terms of unification with Beijing, then China is more likely to accept the inevitable. Such conditions might include reducing the number of U.S. troops or, perhaps, freezing the current level of the U.S. military presence in the peninsula, as well as unequivocally recognizing the existent border between Korea and China. A willingness to accept all economic rights secured by Chinese companies in North Korea will help, naturally, as well.
Regarding the nuclear weapons policies of any pro-Chinese regime, it appears likely that such a regime will surrender its nuclear weapons, for China has no understanding of the nuclear ambitions of Pyongyang and sees the North Korea nuclear program as highly dangerous for the international non-proliferation regime.
In other respects, any pro-Chinese puppet government is likely to implement the same good old (and usually successful) model of ‘developmental dictatorship’ as China itself.
For common people living under such a regime, this will probably mean a significant improvement in both income and living standards. However, this will not necessarily make the regime popular with the public, for whom, as we have said, a major benchmark will remain far richer South Korea. Consequently – and to be frank – any Chinese puppet regime should not count on an easy life.
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.