The sudden demise of Kim Jong-il has drastically increased the probabilities of a regime collapse in Pyongyang and the reunification of the two Koreas. Should either scenario become a reality, China will face the most difficult geopolitical challenge since the disintegration of the Soviet Union two decades ago.
It is thus understandable that Chinese leaders are now trying to do everything possible to prop up the Kim dynasty. Maintaining the status quo will avert a strategic nightmare for China because a collapse of North Korea will not only unleash a flood of refugees into its northeast, but also, more critically, trigger a process that will eventually lead to the reunification of a divided Korean Peninsula and the loss of a buffer state for China.
Yet keeping the Kim dynasty alive will not be easy. Kim Jong-il's son and designated successor, Kim Jong-un, is in his late twenties and has scant political experience. He has no power base of his own. His survival depends solely on the uncertain loyalty of North Korea's military and security forces. Based on historical record, no modern authoritarian ruler has ever managed to pass power to his grandchildren. While succession from the first-generation dictator to his sons is fairly common, no succession from the second to the third generation has ever taken place in non-monarchical autocracies.
In all cases, the second-generation rulers, typically more corrupt and less competent than their fathers, were overthrown before they had a chance to hand power over to their sons. This suggests that second-generation rulers themselves face unfavourable odds of survival. Their authority tends to be weaker, and they face a challenge to their power from ambitious elements within the regime and disaffected members of society. In all likelihood, Kim Jong-il's 17-year reign was an exception, not the rule. This suggests that his son's rule could be very short-lived.
So China must hedge its bets on North Korea. At the moment, Beijing may have no choice but to ensure stability in North Korea. In practical terms, this policy means an increase in economic aid and political support for the new Kim regime. However, given the high probability of a regime collapse in the near future, China must have a strategic alternative: reaching out to South Korea and the United States, the two countries that will wield decisive influence over the course and terms of reunification.
Until now, Beijing has been reluctant to engage in any dialogue with either the US or South Korea regarding the reunification of the two Koreas. The ostensible explanation is that China does not want to enrage North Korea. But the more likely reason is that Chinese leaders may find the prospects of reunification too horrible to contemplate, let alone discuss it with a geopolitical rival such as the US.
Now that the untimely death of Kim Jong-il has thrust the future of the Korean Peninsula to the top of its security agenda (and that of South Korea, the US and Japan), Beijing can no longer behave like an ostrich. It must confront the new geopolitical reality by starting a strategic dialogue with the US and South Korea to explore the terms under which Korean reunification can occur.
Three critical issues need to be resolved in such a dialogue. First, China must reassure South Korea, the most important player in a reunification scenario, that it welcomes and supports a reunited Korea. Making such a declaration with credibility would be hard for China since its national security strategy for the past six decades has centred on a divided Korean Peninsula. But a dramatic policy shift is better than sticking with a doomed strategy. By supporting reunification, both with words and deeds, China can enlist South Korea's help in protecting its legitimate security interests.
Second, China must discuss, with the US and South Korea, how to maintain stability and security during the transition phase. Given the likelihood of a rapid collapse, China will have to co-ordinate its own military and humanitarian operations closely with those of the US and South Korea. In particular, all the stakeholders must reach an understanding on how to secure North Korea's nuclear weapons and facilities. Otherwise, dangerous accidents could happen and lead to direct confrontations between China and the US.
Third, this strategic dialogue must address the long-term presence of American forces in a reunified Korea. Obviously, China will oppose such a presence, but given America's concerns over China's future and the close-knit US-South Korea security alliance, Washington will be unlikely to agree to a complete withdrawal of American forces. A reasonable compromise may be an agreement to limit the American deployment to the south of the 38th parallel and cap the size and capabilities of the South Korean military north of the 38th parallel. In return, China will deploy only lightly armed security forces along the Sino-Korean Border.
Given the sensitivity and urgency of the issues involved, China needs to initiate this dialogue immediately and quietly. If they try, Chinese leaders should find themselves pushing on an open door because their US and South Korean counterparts share the same interest in avoiding an ugly conflict over the remains of the Kim dynasty. The worry is, of course, that the risk-averse Chinese leaders, ever fearful of US containment, will not act boldly and seize a historic opportunity to redraw the geopolitical map of northeast Asia.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in the United States