North Korea: The Plot Thickens

A warship mysteriously sunk, the ailing, ageing Dear Leader trundles overland for frank words from his benefactor. What next? The dying days of the world’s only hereditary Stalinist state, or a standoff just like all those before?

The World Today Published 1 June 2010 Updated 11 March 2020 4 minute READ

Professor Kerry Brown

Former Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

After a period of relative quietness, North Korea is back in the headlines. As ever, it is for all the wrong reasons. When a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, was sunk on March 26, killing 46 soldiers, suspicions ran high that the North Korean regime was behind it.

A refusal to renew a valuable sand supply contract by the South was just one source of potential complaint. The Pyongyang regime’s botched currency revaluation late last year had made huge dents in the wealth of its own elite, at least in the cities, and there were signs that things were reverting to the same desperate straits that prevailed in the mid 1990s, when the great starvations ravaged the country. Acting to type, when in a corner North Korea strikes out.

The regime was innocent until proved guilty, and the United States, China, Russia and Japan, the other main partners in the Six Party Talks, resisted any temptation to condemn. But a South Korean government report in mid- May, following an investigation into what caused the warship to sink, was conclusive.

Marks on the remains of the torpedo found near the wreck were the key evidence, which, the report stated ‘points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine’.

International reaction has been swift. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to Japan on her way to China, said on May 21 that it could not now be business as usual. North Korea has, she said, ‘to stop its provocative behaviour’ or face consequences. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak echoed this. China’s response, however, was more tepid. It simply urged all sides to exercise restraint.

The problem, as always with North Korea, is what to do once the latest outrage has been committed. And the first part of that process is working on how to interpret and understand what has happened.

Dying days

It is hard to see precisely what North Korea gains from the Cheonan attack. True, it likes attention. It wants to force the international community to recognise it, and engage with it. The Six Party Talks, started during former US President George Bush junior’s second term, have been stalled for over eighteen months.

Economically, North Korea is in more of a bind than ever. While China and South Korea boom, it remains a country trapped in poverty, famine and decay. As one long-term observer said in Beijing in early May, ‘Make no mistake about it, we are looking at a dictatorship and a regime in its dying days.’ The question is not if the Kim dynasty will fall, but when, and how painfully.

That may well have been in the mind of Chinese President Hu Jintao when he spent over four hours with Kim Jong Il on his visit to China in early May. Unlike previous visits to the People’s Republic by the Dear Leader, news of this one broke despite a government embargo. Kim’s train proceeded to the city of Dalian, where the whole downtown area was closed. He then went over to Tianjin, just an hour from Beijing, and up to the capital.

Images subsequently released show a figure who has greatly aged, and looks frail. Rumours about his state of health continue, after what was widely believed to be a stroke last year. Some talk of him suffering from brain cancer, with only a short time to live. Outside the inner circle, simply no one knows the true state of his health.


The visit to Beijing was before the Cheonan warship report was released. But the US and South Korea had already been putting pressure on China to use whatever leverage it could to get the North back into line, and to re-engage with talks about dealing with its nuclear programme.

The North issued a report while Kim was in China claiming it had managed to invent a whole new nuclear refinement process. While this met with general scepticism, it is clear that the international community now has no choice but to live with the nuclearising regime, which is not likely to stop. The key objective is to tie it into international inspection and non-proliferation agreements. So far, progress has been glacial.

Initial reports of Kim’s talks in Beijing indicated that things had not gone well. The official Chinese announcement included the tell-tale words that the exchange had been ‘frank’. This usually means there have been areas of disagreement.

A Chinese analyst I talked to in Beijing complained bitterly about the ‘tiresome naïve behaviour of this country we never seem to be able to turn our backs on’. But others were more sanguine: ‘Kim Jong Il is still in charge, but he knows that parts of the military and the elite are starting to think about the world after he is gone’.

The speculation about which of his three sons might be a successor in the world’s only hereditary Stalinist state has intensified since last year, with the first discounted as too much of a playboy, he is often in Macau, one of the great centres of global gambling; the second as unsupported by the military; and the third – the latest favourite – too young, at 26.

‘What is clear is that whoever replaces Kim,’ a senior Chinese academic said, ‘cannot exercise power in the way that Kim did. There will need to be radical changes.’

It is hard to believe Kim did not know of the planned attack on the Cheonan. South Korean intelligence analysts have made clear that his control over power in the country remains strong, despite ill health.

As if to prove this, there have been reports that the official in charge of the North Korean submarines, which executed the strike, has been promoted.

During the nuclear and missile tests early last year, many felt that an aggressive military was starting to hold the upper hand over the Korean Workers Party. Whether this latest attack really adds support to that thesis is still unclear.

The regime’s defiant response to the South Korean report was not reassuring, saying that any further sanctions or punitive actions would be considered ‘an act of war’. At least as it looks out, the regime remains united. And while senior military figures have been known to complain, off the record, about their country’s leadership, that has so far led to no clue of potential opposition to Kim.

Edge of implosion

The international community is now left with the same quandary it has had for over two decades. How to deal with a country which puts over a quarter of its gross domestic product into military expenditure, and is teetering on the edge of implosion, an implosion which would cause huge instability in the area, and be a major source of tension between China and the US.

It is hard to see China being comfortable with even a reunited Korean peninsula which continued hosting tens of thousands of US soldiers – there are 28 thousand at the moment in South Korea – and being regarded as more within the American rather than the Chinese zone of influence. China fought the Korean War with the loss of over a million lives in 1950-53 to avoid this sort of outcome.

A puppet regime without reunification, after Kim, probably under Chinese influence and assistance, is also problematic. South Korea would find that hard to live with.

The cost of reunification, if it ever happened, would be colossal. And total regime implosion would send waves of migrants into an already densely populated part of north east China, adding to problems in an area prone to protests.

Stern message

China downplays its influence, but in this issue it has direct interest. We know nothing of the content of Hu’s four-hour talks but the two were certainly not just pleasantly passing time. Kim’s premature retreat from Beijing may well have been more to do with having heard a stern message than any health problems.

China does not believe in grandstanding, especially with its difficult neighbour. But one senses that, despite the quietness, the mood in Beijing has changed.

The US and the United Nations will do what they have to, and there will be justified rage in Seoul. But China has consistently shown that when the North really encroaches on its interests, it can be decisive. Witness the turning off of pipelines to the North in 2005 during the first nuclear tests there. With so much more at stake, it does not want North Korea to spoil its parade.

So while it will do everything to avoid implosion, and it does not want to see conflict, Beijing has the golden carrot and sticks of energy provision and aid. And in the next few months, it is likely to start using them till it gets the North back in dialogue and talks – because when Pyongyang is talking, it seems to avoid doing things like sinking the Cheonan.