Kremlinology in Beijing and Pyongyang

Let’s face it, compared with the Arab Spring, euro-zone drama, and even the roller-coaster GOP primary season, East Asia is pretty boring. Sure, there was a flurry of excitement when Dear Leader Kim Jong Il “died” two years after probably actually dying, but hey, everything turned out for the best, what with Number Three Son, Kim Jong Un smoothly becoming the figurehead of Kim, Inc. As for China, their economic growth has lagged a bit, but no moment of doom has befallen the regime, whose decennial turnovers of power are predictably staid. For East Asian politicos, there’s not that much to grab headline attention in the world’s most economically dynamic region.

Or maybe there is. Washington Asia watchers are tantalized, and some are quite worried, over recent events in both Beijing and Pyongyang that may indicate hitherto unrecognized levels of dissension and possibly tension within the secretive ruling circles of both nations. In China, as I talk about on the homepage, one of the more colorful and controversial leaders, Bo Xilai, was fired from his job as party boss of massive Chongqing city. This almost certainly derailed his chances of becoming one of China’s “Supremes,” the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee. Was the populist Bo boxed in because he had run afoul of soon-to-retire President Hu Jintao and Premeir Wen Jibao? Or was he becoming a petty tyrant, squashing corruption investigations into his family, and threatening erstwhile allies? The bigger question is: Is there a more serious split inside the Chinese Communist party leadership as it prepares to turn over power to a new generation later this year?

In North Korea, a new crisis has erupted over Pyongyang’s plans to make a disguised intercontinental ballistic missile test, supposedly launching a satellite, in April. The North’s announcement comes barely two weeks after Washington and Pyongyang reached an agreement for the North to stop nuclear testing at one site in exchange for food aid. There’s a lot of confusion over whether the U.S. knew the North was planning a missile launch and warned against it, or whether the North agreed not to do any more missile tests. While no one really expected the North to abide by its agreement, experts are worried that Pyongyang’s precipitate action, not even waiting for food aid to arrive before scuttling the agreement, may mean a power struggle inside the leadership as it consolidates itself after Kim Jong Un’s accession. 

All of a sudden, the certainty many Asia watchers took for granted has been shaken. If it’s true that the Bo sacking and the April missile test indicate rivalries within the inner circles in both Beijing and Pyongyang, then we may be heading into a period of greater instability. Perhaps more provocative action from North Korea, which, if miscalculated, could draw the South into a shooting response. Possibly a struggle for power in China in which heir apparent Xi Jinping will need to purge Bo supporters while dealing with a more confident People’s Liberation Army. 

Washington is always practicing neo-Kremlinology when it comes to these two secretive regimes. In normal times, that’s the talk of cocktail parties. But when things are getting uncertain, our inability to have a good idea of what’s happening inside the black boxes of China and North Korea is deeply worrisome. We have enough tension with China and hair-trigger disputes with North Korea as it is. But without better access to what’s happening inside, and without legions of linguists who can pour over every scrap of political information coming out of both countries, the Obama administration, and whoever follows it, better be prepared for the unexpected. That may well be the case more for North Korea than China, but not knowing who’s up and who’s down or who’s gunning for whom in both capitals, will make it far harder to have confidence that we know what’s coming next.

Michael Auslin — Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues.

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