At this moment, Chinese officials are undoubtedly trying to restructure the regime in Pyongyang. We are not going to like Beijing’s handiwork.
In 2009, Kim Jong Il designated his son, Kim Jong Un, to be his successor. Most observers think that, with the Dear Leader now gone, his succession plans cannot succeed. For one thing, Jong Un has not had the time to put his own supporters into key positions in Pyongyang or gain experience in balancing the regime’s constituent elements.
But the young Kim faces even greater obstacles than these. Kim Jong Il had essentially appointed his own sister, Kim Kyong Hui, and her husband, Jang Song Taek, as regents for his untested son. The military, the strongest institution in the country, is thought to detest both of them, especially Ms. Kim. That’s a problem for the young heir. Although he himself was made a four-star general in September 2010 by his father — at the same time as Ms. Kim, his aunt — he has no known strong ties to the country’s flag officers.
Many observers would agree with former American diplomat Christopher Hill that the North will soon end up with a military junta, at least for the time being. Chinese flag officers would very much like that result. After all, China’s relations with the North are primarily handled by the countries’ militaries these days. Beijing has, for decades, been buying the loyalty of the North’s generals and admirals faster than Kim Jong Il could purge them. Now that Kim is resting under glass in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the Chinese are going to own all the flag officers they need.
A junta means, in large measure, that Kim Jong Un is bound to lose whatever influence he has inherited. He may be kept on the throne for the sake of appearances, but he will be reigning more than ruling. In any event, he will not be in a position to oppose Beijing’s plans for his country.
What will be China’s first order of business for the new North Korean junta? Beijing has already tried to get Pyongyang to accept the basing of its troops in the portions of North Korea near China, and it’s a safe bet they will renew their attempts to put their forces on Korean soil. So it is not inconceivable that, in the next two or three years, Chinese soldiers and the American military will again be face-to-face across the 155-mile Demilitarized Zone.
China’s troops left Panmunjom in 1994. Soon, it appears, they will be back.
— Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.