Kim’s Death to Usher In New Chinese Foreign Policy Era

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Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Dec. 19 – The death of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il from a heart attack may prove to be a turning point in China’s foreign policy.

Kim, who was 69 years old, had been in ill-health for some time and apparently suffered the fatal heart attack while on a train in North Korea on Saturday. While mainstream media goes into overdrive with talk of a Korean Peninsula crisis, the reality is that this situation has long been catered for in carefully thought-out plans by the North Koreans themselves, in addition to concerned neighboring countries South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. The United States too, an important player in shaping the destiny of Korea, will also have had its contingency plan well worked out, almost certainly including dialogue with each of the affected nations. The six-party talks on nuclear disarmament, with or without North Korean involvement, will have provided plenty of opportunity for discussion.

While the initial reaction to Kim’s death may indicate a regime on the brink of change and potential for unrest, the prospect for a Korean Peninsula crisis is slim. The North Koreans have reacted swiftly to announce the appointment of Kim Jong-Il’s third son, Kim Jung-Un, as “Great Leader” – signifying that, in North Korea at least, the handover of power has gone smoothly. Kim senior introduced his son as heir apparent to leaders of both China and Russia, the two countries upon which so much depends, and involved his son in diplomatic missions to these countries earlier this year.

Immediate concern is on the strength of North Korea’s military, which holds the key to the future of the nation and has the potential to destabilize Northeast Asia. With Seoul and Tokyo within missile striking range and the potential for nuclear threat, the status of the military personnel with fingers actually on buttons remain, to the West at least, hard to determine.

However, I very much doubt that this is the case for China, which is aware of exactly who is in control of North Korea’s weapon systems and able to deploy weapons. I suspect the strong hand of Beijing is very much behind the scenes, providing a very firm, resolute and strong push for no conflict in the region. We can, in Northeast Asia, rest easy and trust the Chinese right now, and frankly, we need to. Kim Jong-Il’s passing is, in fact, one of the few signs that having a militarily strong China is not always a bad thing.

China has likely quickly deployed troops to the North Korean border, and I suspect that Russia has done the same. The more nervous nations of South Korea and Japan will be ramping up their military coverage as well, but this is purely to demonstrate capability. China has the additional worry of potential civil unrest in the event that millions of North Koreans decide to attempt to migrate to its wealthier neighbor.

Beyond immediate military movements, the most fascinating issue following Kim’s death is the longer term impact on China’s foreign policy. China has, after all, just lost in death an erratic, yet key regional leader.

Let us not forget that North Korea is an unreal country, created only in the aftermath of the Korean War and a de facto armed conflict taking place between the hard-line communists under Mao and the democratic forces of the United States, keen to see Communism contained in North Asia.

North Korea has until now acted as a buffer state between two, diametrically opposed ideologies. However, China is now caught up in the tango of global trade and hard line ideology has been replaced with exchange rate arguments and bilateral trade deficits. History has long demonstrated that buffer states are fleeting creations of time, and that political evolution eventually brings a return to the more ancient borders and tribal delineations of the past. North Korea, we should be reminded, has only existed for the past 63 years. Its only tradition has been sustaining hard-line Stalinist ideology.

The situation in North Korea as it concerns China doesn’t come at the easiest of times. The Chinese themselves are somewhat in state of flux over leadership changes that must take effect next year and any instability from nuclear weapons right next door will not be a welcome distraction.

The death of Kim Jong-Il also comes at a time when China’s relationships with many traditional hard-line allies, especially Vietnam (a communist state) and Myanmar (a military dictatorship), are also proving slightly rocky. Throw in India, Tibet, an unstable Pakistan, and the United States pulling troops out of Afghanistan, and one begins to sense the feeling that China may be getting a little stretched. China cannot afford to have instable relations with its neighbors and its foreign policy is, in short, indicative of a nation trying to take on too much, too soon.

While I expect little regional unrest to emerge as concerns the North Korea issue, I do see huge stresses all around China. For this, the foreign policy path it has taken on – flexing its muscles as a regional power, buying trade, beefing up its military and propping up dubious political regimes – appears no longer sustainable.

North Korea’s current situation may yet prove to be a turning point in China’s foreign policy. Changes under the new leadership of 2012 will almost certainly reflect that.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Founding Partner and Principal of Dezan Shira & Associates, an Asian foreign direct investment legal and tax practice established in 1992 and with twenty offices throughout China, India, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore.He is also Vice Chairman of the Business Advisory Council of the Greater Tumen Initiative, a UNDP sponsored multilateral body that includes China, Russia, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea with Japan as an observer nation. He may be contacted at

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2 thoughts on “Kim’s Death to Usher In New Chinese Foreign Policy Era

    bob shead says:

    Hi Chris
    A good article about the repercussions of the death of Kim Jung Very Ill!! However, personally I wonder why Asian stock markets have dropped when it is obvious that China controls – unless of course, Asian countries do not believe in China – only that they feel the need to be polite to the Middle Kingdom! Totally agree that China is now under more pressure than at any timed since the creation of the Communist Dynasty – ie the new Emperor!
    George Orwell saw the future well eh!!

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    Hi Bob, good point that relates to the unnerving fact that much of China’s stock markets are geared on sentiment rather than fundamentals. That’s not good.
    As for China, with pressures to the West (Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Vietnam, Myanmar) to the South (Philippines, the US in Australia) and now the East (DPRK, Japan) their Foreign Ministry for sure must be feeling the heat. It’s unsustainable, and they need to rethink a lot of their regional relationships. Best wishes – Chris

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