A Death in the Family


(U.S. News & World Report)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

photo by Reuters/KCNA

by Andrew Scobell

January 22, 2014

The execution of the once-powerful uncle of North Korea's young dictator last month raises new questions about the most opaque polity on the planet.

The ruthless purge of 67-year-old Jang Sung Taek appears to be the culmination of a power struggle that makes 30 year-old Kim Jong Un the undisputed supreme leader of North Korea. Two years after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, the younger Kim felt he needed to make an unambiguous statement to elites in the Korean Worker's Party and the Korean People's Army that he was firmly in command and had zero tolerance for dissent. What better way to signal his omnipotence than to send the message that no one in the country is immune from the ruler's wrath than to physically eliminate the most politically prominent member of his own family?

For China, North Korea's closest “friend,” the demise of Jang raises new questions about North Korea's policy direction, and produces new uncertainties about the condition of the bilateral relationship. Jang was Pyongyang's key interlocutor with Beijing and for China a critical point of access to North Korea's elite. Despite the existence of a decades-old formal alliance between China and North Korea — seemingly sealed in blood during the Korean War of the 1950s when Mao Zedong's decision to intervene militarily ensured the survival of Kim Jong Un's grandfather, Kim Il Sung — ties between the two communist regimes have long been very strained. Distrust and mutual suspicion are high.

In spite of these significant tensions the two countries cling together out of a sense of desperation because neither has another ally in the region to turn to and both lack reliable friends elsewhere in the world. Thus, while each is wary of the other, neither sees any viable alternative to keeping the other close. Both China and North Korea see the balance of power in Northeast Asia heavily skewed in favor of the United States with its robust allies, Japan and South Korea. Senior communist leaders in Beijing and Pyongyang harbor deep insecurities about perceived external threats and real or imagined internal challenges to their respective regimes.

For Pyongyang, Beijing provides life support in the form of critical supplies of food and fuel along with lifelines of road, rail and air links to the outside world. North Korea's relations have been strained with other potential donors — South Korea, the United States to name two of the most important ones — underscoring the vital nature of its ties with China.

For Beijing, Pyongyang sits uncomfortably adjacent to China's political and economic heartland — North Korea literally lies upon its doorstep. Chinese leaders fear the specter of instability across the Yalu River spilling over into China. Beijing remains highly motivated to do whatever is necessary to maintain some semblance of stability — however tenuous — in its obstreperous neighbor. This includes providing an estimated $9 billion worth of investments for two massive infrastructure projects just across the border in 2011 alone (according to RAND research) as well as tolerating repeated instances of North Korean provocations and indiscretions, including the continued development of a nuclear weapons program.

China-North Korea relations will likely weather the current internal turbulence and both sides will work to re-establish an uneasy equilibrium in their relationship. Beijing and Pyongyang will almost certainly remain "friends" — not because they like or respect each other, but because both believe they have no other choice.

Andrew Scobell is senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He has conducted extensive research on the tumultuous relationship between China and North Korea.

This commentary originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report on January 21, 2014. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.