April 27, 2020

A Nightmare for For China: What Would Beijing Do if Kim Jong-un Dies?

By Kristine Lee

A leadership transition in North Korea would present both tremendous risk and opportunity for all stakeholders in Northeast Asia, perhaps most acutely for China.

Beijing has long touted its role as a champion of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula while using its relative proximity to Pyongyang to systematically undercut Washington’s approach to North Korea. Even at the height of the United States’ “maximum pressure” campaign in 2017, for example, China cast North Korea a vital lifeline through facilitating illegal ship-to-ship transfers of coal, petroleum, and other commodities.

Beijing has long sought to exert control over a notoriously recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang to expand its clout and secure its sphere of influence in Northeast Asia. My colleagues and I examine in a recent CNAS report how exactly China is advancing these aims amid competition with the United States. A political shock in the form of a leadership transition in Pyongyang, while riddled with profound risks and unknowns for all countries in Northeast Asia and beyond, could also present itself as an opportunity for China to ensure that North Korea remains squarely within its orbit.

Read the full article in The National Interest.

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