December 22, 2011

U.S., China seen to prioritize stability in N.K.

Both the U.S. and China will continue to prioritize stability and seek the status quo on the Korean Peninsula for the time being following the demise of North Korea’s longtime strongman Kim Jong-il, experts said on Thursday.

Any instability in the communist state would further increase uncertainties in security environments in East Asia, which would cause headaches for the two global powers and negatively affect their domestic politics, they pointed out.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and other top officials have visited the North Korean Embassy in Beijing to convey their condolences to the North. Its Foreign Ministry has stressed stability in the North, calling the heir apparent Kim Jong-un “leader.”

After her talks with Japan’s Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea, as well as in ensuring regional peace and stability.” 

These moves by the two powers showed that their priority is on stability, experts said.

“Neither of the major powers wants an inadvertent war, and any move to try to seize advantage of North Korea’s leadership transition could well trigger a regional conflict,” Patrick M. Cronin, senior advisor and senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security, told The Korea Herald in an email interview.

“China has wanted stability above all else, so much so that it put aside criticism of the North after two lethal uses of force last year. China prizes stability even more so now that North Korea has lost Kim Jong-il’s legitimacy.”

Cronin went on to say that the U.S., as well as South Korea, should seek stability for the time being.

“The U.S. might well favor regime change and unification if it calculated that such an outcome were possible without the specter of conflict. But the reality is that there is no reformer within North Korea, and any U.S. or South Korean intervention into North Korea would almost certainly spark a Chinese counter response,” he said. 

“The U.S. and South Korea should seek short-term stability but probe for an opening to create an eventual change in the regime. The situation is neither ripe nor safe at present.”

Balbina Hwang, professor at Georgetown University, said that the U.S. would “ideally” want both stability and change in the North while pointing out that “regime change” is not an option for the two powers.

“In fact, the U.S. would ideally want both (stability and change). However, any attempt to ‘force’ regime change in North Korea from the outside would most definitely create instability. Therefore, the U.S. policy has been very consistent over the decades to try to promote internal positive change within NK while at the same ensuring stability,” she said.

“I believe the situation will be status quo for the next year or two ... To force regime change would be counterproductive to the primary goal of maintaining stability on the peninsula and in the region. Thus, both Beijing and Washington will follow a ‘passive’ policy of watching and waiting to see how the internal situation in the North develops.”

Hwang, who served as senior special advisor to former Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill from 2007-2009, also said that a transition of power to Kim Jong-un will not lead to any significant shift in the U.S. and Chinese policy stances.

“As we enter 2012, which is the year for regime change in all the countries in Northeast Asia, the priority in Beijing and Washington will not be on coming up with a creative or radically new policy towards the North,” she said.

“This is simply too risky and frankly not worth it. Therefore, there will not be any significant shift in policy or stance towards the North.”

Yu Suk-ryul, professor emeritus at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, said that China may continue to seek a greater influence over the North, which has bolstered its standing on the international diplomatic stage.

“China would not lose any influence on the North including its diplomatic leverage gained by hosting the multilateral denuclearization talks. For this, it would continue to maintain ‘special ties’ with the North as it did with Kim Jong-il,” he said.

“It also takes into account its economic interests in the North including natural resources and other development issues. So, it would maintain close ties with the North while seeking to fend off any instability there, which is of no benefit to China.”

Yu also raised the possibility that the two major powers could agree not to intervene in North Korea’s affairs as it could lead to a major conflict between them.

“The U.S. and China are now in a emotional tug of war over the North. China wants to put the North under its exclusive influence while the U.S. would never let it happen,” he said.

“Should the North fall under U.S. influence, the two powers would get caught in an intense stalemate along the border with China. So, the two could agree not to intervene in the North and let it address its issues on its own.”

Underscoring that the passing of Kim Jong-il has thrown Northeast Asia into heightened uncertainty, Cronin stressed that leaders of the surrounding countries need to exercise “prudence.”

“(Under this circumstance) conflict should be avoidable, but it is more possible now than it has been anytime since 1994,” he said.

“Thus, leaders in all surrounding countries need to exercise prudence rather than rushing ahead in the dangerous (situation), believing that there is some golden opportunity that is simply not supported by the fact that North Korea remains an isolated, delusional dictatorship, one that is now propped up by a very powerful military.”