Of all the world’s known unknowns, the future of North Korea is perhaps the hardest to predict and hence presents China with unknown difficulties ahead. Today’s difficulty is mainly one of embarrassment, to have an ally who treats its own people with such contempt, draws communism further into the mire, and creates international incidents with nuclear and missile developments, meanwhile ignoring Beijing’s mild chastisements and sensible advice.
Pyongyang’s latest verbal aggressions as well as missile and nuclear tests are just more of the same tactics it has used for two decades. Creating supposed crises raises its status in the world without really threatening anybody.
The best hope for China now may be that Pyongyang’s new young leader has sufficiently shown his nationalistic credentials with bombs and rockets to satisfy the public and the ageing generals who stand behind the throne. In which case, he may be able to continue the reforms he has hinted at. Mobile phones and some internet access, albeit purely domestic, are opening space for the spread of news from the real world outside.
Trade with China continues to grow and even some investment has arrived. The best news for China would be that economic reform not only continues but is focused on trade with China.
But such economic opening must also make North Koreans aware of the even greater economic advantages they could gain by merging with the South. That cannot be done overnight but the North still has the sinews of a once semi-developed industrial economy, which could easily be rebuilt with the South’s know-how and access to money.
The pull of Korean nationalism is strong. In their different ways, Koreans on both sides are equally nationalistic, with the South being fortunate that it was mentored by the US (and indirectly by post-war Japan) while the North was mentored by Mao and Stalin.
The status quo suits everyone except the suffering North Koreans. Kim Jong-un probably recognizes that he must try to be an agent of change. The risk that he is buried in the implosion of the system is high. Change is dangerous. But maybe he has a long-term game plan; perhaps to bring about reunification and so preserve something of the family name by exchanging power for an honored place in history and fat bank accounts for the leading army and party functionaries?
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