North Korea Monitor

Dr. Lankov: Chinese Intervention Not So Bad

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Dr. Lankov, writing in the Asia Times, discusses China’s increasingly apparent commercial and geopolitical interests in North Korea(For some background on this theme, see here, here, and here ). That China sees a role for itself in post-Kim Jong Il North Korea is as plain as day.  Already the Chinese are laying the groundwork to ensure that resource-rich NK is a well-established fixture in the Chinese sphere of influence. On the growing economic influence the Chinese wield, Dr. Lankov writes:

While small Chinese merchants, obviously driven by their own initiative, sell consumption goods to the North Korean market operators, big Chinese companies, probably backed by the government, are busily establishing control over the mining industry and making inroads into infrastructure developments.

The countr’s [sic] largest iron ore mine, in Musan, as well as its largest copper mine, in Hyesan, are operated by joint ventures controlled by Chinese capital. Talks about rights to use Korean sea ports are advancing as well, albeit not without delays. And, last but not least, Chinese publications stress that the ancient kingdom of Koryo which in the early centuries of the Christian era controlled what is now North Korea (as well as large parts of the present day northeast China) was, essentially, an “ancient Chinese minority state” – implying that the Korean north has long been an area where China played a special role.

As for a possible Chinese invasion, while such an event remains highly improbable, it is within the realm of possibility. China may set up a pro-Chinese puppet state to ensure Chinese hegemony in the region, and also because the U.S. and South Korea would be unwilling or unable to intervene on their own:

The Chinese might even undertake a pre-emptive operation, without waiting for disaster to strike. The North Korean elite is deadly afraid of unification with the South, assuming that after such a unification they will be held responsible for their old deeds, purged and perhaps even killed (this is unlikely to happen, but being in the habit of killing their own opponents, these people have some trouble in realizing that political defeat does not necessarily lead to a slaughter).

A pro-Chinese government would keep Kim’s officials in place – alive and well they would enjoy an increasingly affluent lifestyle. So, joining hands with the Chinese against the supposed brethren in the South seems to be a logical decision – at least if things get seriously unstable. This makes a pro-Chinese coup in Pyongyang a distinct possibility.

What might be the results of such actions? While Dr. Lankov is quick to point out that while a Chinese invasion/occupation of North Korea is hardly the best outcome, it is far from the worst and could potentially lead to a more open, democratic North:

One should not welcome such a turn of events, of course. However, Chinese intervention, while not being the best available solution, might still open ways for hope – at least in comparison with the present-day gloomy and explosive situation. To start with, the world probably will be unable and/or willing to do much anyway. If a pro-Chinese coup is staged in Pyongyang, the world will face a fait accompli, so all protests will be useless (and easily deniable).

If a chaos erupts in North Korea, the outside world might indeed welcome (and even actively encourage) Chinese involvement. North Korea probably has five to 10 crude nuclear devices, plus a large stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium and a substantial amount of chemical weapons. Internal chaos might produce a refugee crisis on a scale East Asia has not seen since the 1940s. Both are good reasons why dangerous chaos would have be stopped, by force if necessary, but neither US nor South Korea seem well-prepared for this task.


There are few doubts that reforms in a Chinese-controlled North Korea will produce a fast and remarkable improvement in the living standards – much as has happened in Vietnam and China itself. However, if those reforms are undertaken without unification with the South, the North Koreans will not compare their state and their consumption level with those of rich South, but rather with their own sorry past, and as a result they will have less psychological reason for discontent.

As an added benefit, the discontent when it arises will be channeled not against a democratically elected national government but against a regime that will be clearly a dictatorship, forcefully imposed by a foreign power, and largely consisting of Kim Jong Il’s ex-officials – that is, people responsible for earlier abuses and economic disasters. These opportunistic puppets will make convenient scapegoats, and this will mean that ideas of liberal democracy will not become seriously discredited. Meanwhile, the South will be seen as a land of prosperity, beacon of democracy and a truly national polity.

I wonder how a Chinese puppet state  in North Korea would change the balance of power in East Asia? With North Korea’s nukes under the control of a more rational and predictable power, one that would go to great lengths to not upset its own development and internal stability, such might help aussuage a future East Asia arms race and help defuse tensions throughout the region in the long-run. In the short-run, tensions and reawakening of nationalism are a definite possibility, but there would be little any one would be willing or able to do, short of an outright Chinese occupation. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out in the coming years.

(H/T Marmot’s Hole)

Written by nkmonitor

February 23, 2008 at 2:12 pm

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