China’s Reaction to the North Korean Succession Crisis

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 20

Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping (L) and Kim Jong-Il (R)

The Dear Leader’s absence at the 60th anniversary of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) founding on September 9 added currency to the speculation that Kim Jong-Il’s health may be deteriorating after having suffered a stroke sometime between August 14 – 22. Yet leading DPRK specialists expressed doubt about Kim Jong-Il’s alleged new illness. Some believe that this is the regime’s stratagem in offsetting international repercussions to Pyongyang’s premeditated “surprise” announcement to suspend disabling the nuclear reactors on August 14 [1].

There is, however, no debate that Kim Jong-Il’s poor health could trigger an unpredictable domestic crisis. Kim’s absence from state celebrations honoring his family’s iron-clad control over the DPRK touched the nerves of analysts throughout the region—notably the Chinese. For a long time the Chinese have had to plan for various scenarios in the event of Kim’s incapacitation and the subsequent power struggle it will likely cause. If indeed Kim is seriously ill as suggested by South Korean and American intelligence, then this contingency may be approaching, raising questions about the preparedness of the stakeholders, and in particular China, in managing the crisis.

The challenge for Beijing is that it has increasingly less leverage over the power-play in Pyongyang. Therefore, it is critical for Beijing to take precautionary measures in order to protect its vital national interests, such as border security in Northeast China. These measures include preparation for a negative military dimension in Sino-DPRK relations. This is underlined by Beijing’s rather pessimistic view on North Korea’s succession outcome.

Divide-and-Rule and Dynastic Heredity

The orderly transfer of power is an unresolved challenge to any political system that practices dynastic heredity as a way of carrying out succession. This process in Pyongyang is made more unpredictable by Kim Il-Sung’s propensity for using “divide-and-rule” to hold onto his power. Kim Il-Sung effectively used the pro-Beijing faction in the Korea Worker’s Party (KWP) to undermine the pro-USSR faction. Once he consolidated his power, he purged the pro-Beijing generals; Kim’s masterful art of divide-and-rule blurred fault lines between these factions and created a cult of personality around himself. In much of the 1960s he played Beijing against Moscow and vice versa [2]. During a trip to China in September 1982, Kim Il-Sung explained to Deng Xiaoping that he had to arrange for his son Kim Jong-Il to take over because senior cadres of the party were not united—none of them had sufficient clout or legitimacy to rule the country. Only Kim Jong-Il’s appointment would prevent a vicious power struggle among them [3].

Kim Jong-Il pursued the political tactic of “divide-and-rule” even more relentlessly than his father. The current top leadership remains divided, as was under his father, the “Great Leader,” which may mean “divide-and-rule” has likely not been a personal choice but rather a strategic necessity for Kim to maintain his father’s dynastic regime. In this case, family heredity has become core to North Korea’s political system that makes an orderly succession difficult to arrange.

Researchers in Beijing are uncertain whether the next round of succession will follow the time-tested model of hereditary succession [4]. However, time may have run out for an alternative arrangement: Not only has Kim been indecisive or secretive about which son should be chosen, his failing health may have also cut short the grooming period for the “chosen one” to temper himself for the eventual take-over. The Confucian Juche (self-reliance) may accord a level of legitimacy to the crown prince if he is anointed by the Dear Leader. Yet he would be too young and politically inept to have a strong personal power base and too inexperienced to handle the factional strife left by his father’s departure.

Furthermore, Kim has suppressed the emergence of an alternative political authority other than his family members. As a result, there exists no non-family figure at the apex of power in the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) or Central Military Commission (CMC) capable of commanding the loyalty of all the key political power bases in the regime. With his sons likely unprepared for the role and possible alternatives suppressed, the Chinese may be wise to believe that the transfer of power will likely be chaotic. According to Chinese diplomatic sources, this lack of preparation on Kim’s part is inconceivable [5].

Various scenarios

If Kim remains healthy for a period of time, one of his sons can be groomed to a position accepted by most of power elites, especially the top brass. If, however, Kim is incapacitated, power will likely have to be passed on to one of the sons or someone close to his family rather promptly. This is politically destabilizing for a country in great economic stress and under the specter of a looming food crisis. Under these politically precarious circumstances, Kim will likely have to secure insurance from key party and military leaders to protect the designated successor (Author’s discussion with DPRK Specialists in Beijing, September 2008).

Another option is that Kim may create a collective management mechanism to cope with the transitional challenges. Entrusted by Kim Jong-Il, a small number of senior officials could form a supreme authority to manage state affairs. The top positions would be shared rather than concentrated in one person. Kim’s family members will be included in this body with an arrangement that would allow one of them to rise to primacy.

Hospital-bed politics may have already begun. Although Kim cannot fulfill his duty in full capacity, his authority remains unchallenged. He can still hold the whole system together and issue directives over major issues, such as key personnel decisions and denuclearization. A small team has already been established to handle daily state management on his behalf [6]. Over time this mechanism may evolve into a practical power transfer arrangement.

Yet in the meantime the party, army and state may become dysfunctional, as the DPRK system has been designed under a one-man-command formula. With the top leader incapacitated, gaping holes are now becoming apparent in the chain of command.

The Divided Military as a Source of Trouble

If family succession proves impossible for the aforementioned reasons, Kim Jong-Il may elect to pass his power onto the military. In 1998 the North Korean Constitution was revised to make the National Defense Commission (NDC) the highest state organ. Kim Jong-Il has primarily used the Korea People’s Army (KPA) for the purpose of exerting authority because control over the military is a short-cut for his power consolidation. In the wake of Kim’s illness, placing “military first” is no longer just a policy, but rather an institutionalized framework for political management over all state affairs. The Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong-Nam, announced in a September 9 speech that the NDC is “the hub of the national leadership,” an elevation of its Constitutional status as the highest authority of national defense [7]. This statement demonstrates that the KPA’s political influence has risen in the wake of Kim’s ailments and has solidified its key stake in the post-Kim Jong-Il era.

Yet the KPA is not a monolithic body. Kim commands by following Chairman Mao’s adage that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun” by allowing a number of top brass to report to him directly and personally. As a divide-and-rule measure this has been effective to tame the development of the most powerful institution in the country. Consequently, it has generated an overtly personalized command chain that stimulates faction formation among the senior officers [8].

According to Chinese DPRK specialists, the KPA has a privileged status in the DPRK’s political hierarchy. Aspirants for the top job—notably from Kim’s family—would inevitably try to establish special relations with the regime’s top generals. However, this would further politicize the KPA and intensify succession tension. Kim’s management has made it hard for any successor to have sufficient personal authority to manage such a faction ridden system.

More specifically, the source of KPA’s political power is institutionalized along two parallel lines. The first line is the regular command structure of the KPA. This consists of field armies and garrison troops. Most senior officers are loyal followers of Kim but relations are less personal in comparison with the second line of commanders who manage Kim’s security units. They actually form the inner circle of the military clique serving as the “big brother in the back” in the KPA. Kim is highly dependent on their loyalty to execute his succession plan since they also maintain close contact with his sons. These units are a subsystem within the KPA, responsible only to Kim, although theoretically their superiors are those in the formal structure of command. The biggest uncertainty is whether there is any powerful figure in the current DPRK leadership who can prevent the strife between these two camps of top brass. If there is not one, then civil war might be a real possibility.

China’s Reaction: Hedging for the Worst

If Pyongyang’s succession falters, political instability will lead to regime disorder and may have grave repercussions. A one million strong army under no effective control and with nuclear capability is a security nightmare for China, needless to mention the massive waves of refugees and economic disasters associated with the ensuing crisis. China would likely bear the first brunt.

Geopolitics in the Far East could be dramatically changed as well. Kim Jong-Il’s incapacitation could result in a military hostile toward China. As such, Beijing believes that it is naive to assume that the DPRK would fall without a fight [9]. The German model may be the best one can expect but may be the last thing achievable. Even if peaceful absorption is realized, it would be an extremely expensive one, not only for the reunified Korea but for all the countries in the region.

Given these high stakes, Beijing is on high-alert to the situation in the DPRK and is quietly making preparations for possible turmoil, ranging from prospects of internal conflicts to a massive influx of refugees. Even in the best case scenario—namely, eventual peaceful reunification—an end to the war on the peninsula may still usher in a period of strategic realignment producing new uncertainties for China [10].

One of the ways China is monitoring the situation is by keeping track of Kim’s health. Chinese leaders’ scheduled visits to North Korea often have to be adjusted at a short notice from Pyongyang due to Kim’s state of physical conditions. In July, Xi Jingping was the last foreign leader Kim received before his public disappearance. It has been widely reported that the PLA has sent five medical workers to attend to Kim’s recovery [11].

Nevertheless, Kim’s health problem may not change China’s current DPRK policy centered on the principle of crisis aversion, although Beijing does realize that this policy is very costly. China has provided huge economic aid to an increasingly unpredictable neighbor, symbolizing not only Beijing’s lingering “buffer zone” mentality but also its lack of alternatives to the status quo [12]. Yet China may have to rapidly shift this policy to hedge against any negative scenarios in the wake of Kim’s illness.

A hedging strategy has increasingly become a central pivot in Beijing’s DPRK policy, the key to which is a set of plans to preempt a dangerous situation from spilling over from the Peninsula. One important element of this strategy is Beijing’s multilateral effort to deal with a sudden crisis with regional countries. For example, President Hu Jintao made a state visit to Seoul just one day after the Olympic Games, at a time when Kim’s illness was widely reported.

Beijing also must face an unpleasant reality to cope with the KPA in the post-Kim Jong-Il era. Some KPA generals harbor strong anti-Chinese sentiments due to Beijing’s firm anti-nuclear stance as well as those stirred up by Kim Il-Sung, which worsened relations between the two militaries. This discontent is readily visible: Border clashes between the two militaries occur routinely. Mindful of this poor relationship, the PLA deployed regular army units along 1,000 km-long Sino-DPRK border in 2002.

Moreover, Beijing has drafted contingency plans for military intervention across the borders, whether it be providing humanitarianism aid; conducting UN peace-keeping-making missions; or clearing up the contamination caused by the destruction of DPRK nuclear facilities. In a scenario where a large number of Korean refugees flood toward China, the PLA may be tasked to establish forbidden areas on both sides of the border line.


1. Zhang Liankui, “Good news and worries concerning DPRK nuclear challenge”, forthcoming Chinese News Week, 1 November 2008.

2. Yang Jun & Wang Qiubin, On the relationship between China and Korean Peninsula, Beijing, Shehuikexue chubanseh, 2006, p. 240.

3. Interview with Beijing’s DPRK specialists in January 2001.

4. Interviews with Chinese scholars in Beijing in September 2008.

5. In 2001 when Kim Jong-Il had a serious car accident, but he recovered remarkably well, since then he has contemplated this issue. Information revealed from M. General Lu Guangye, former PLA attaché to Pyongyang in Sydney in 14 July 2003.

6. Analysis from a number of Chinese and Korean DPRK specialists in Beijing in September 2008.

7. The Chosun Ilbo, 11 September 2008.

8. Ken Gause, “North Korea Civil-Military relations: Military-first Politics to a Point,” US Army War College, September 2006.

9. Zhang Liankui, “Good news and worries concerning DPRK nuclear challenge”, forthcoming Chinese News Week, 1 November 2008.

10. Shen Dingli, “North Korea’s Strategic Significance to China,” China Security, Autumn 2006, pp. 19-34.

11. It is said that Kim’s face became twisted as the result of the stroke. The main mission of PLA doctors is to straighten the face with acupuncture treatment. Information gathered in Beijing in September.

12. On the debate between schools of “buffer zone” and “liability,” see You Ji, “Understand China’s North Korea Policy,” China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, 8 March 2004.