The problem in understanding North Korea is that there’s not just one country involved, there are six (North Korea, South Korea, China, the United States, Japan, and Russia), all of them have conflicting motives with the others, and all of them will respond differently to whatever happens next.
North Korea appears to be rapidly degenerating into a sordid mash-up of Korean historical drama and contemporary soap opera. That may be the case…or it may not: Nothing is ever clear about what’s going on or why in the North.
But here are the key players ranked in terms of immediacy to the situation, and here are some of the factors involved and speculation based on those factors.
#1 – North Korea izzownsef. Here the scenario breaks down into three distinct possibilities:
1a – Kim Jong-un is incompetent. The most obvious & simplest answer. “You’re not the boss of me!” attitude elevated to dictatorial status. Anybody who crosses him for any reason gets it in the neck. Petty and vengeful, with a whim of iron and an unmitigated sense of entitlement.
How it plays out: He really is as capricious as he seems. As a result he makes a lot of people nervous, including his primary ally, China. Nobody wants a bratty teenager (emotionally if not chronologically) to have access to nuclear weapons. If Kim does start something, there can’t not be a response by the US and possibly even Russia, even if the warheads aren’t aimed at them. So Kim’s first volley will also be his last and China will spend the next couple of generations dealing with radioactive fallout in Manchuria; not something they long to be doing. If he is this capricious, China has a vested interest in either removing him from the equation directly, or in backing whoever can successfully remove him from the equation while still being willing to take
orders suggestions from China. If Kim is indeed throwing temper tantrums on a grandiose scale, then there will be no loyalty to him and a coup, should one occur, would likely be speedy and successful.
1b – Kim Jong-un is moderately competent. We don’t know what’s really going on in North Korea, and so Kim may be reacting to an actual and bonafide internal political threat against his regime. The question is what would be motivating such a threat? A desire to become the ruler, or a realization that time has run out on the North and rude changes are in order? If the latter is the case Kim may be desperately clinging to power against a rising tide of lower level functionaries who are telling him change is a’coming.
How it plays out: China wants a stable North Korea on their back door step. They’re willing to put up with a lot of public antics so long as they are convinced Kim really does have a handle on things and will not plunge his country into civil war, or make it collapse, or worse provoke a response from the US or South Korea. Unless the signs are so obvious even to the Chinese that Kim can’t hold on for long, they will continue to back him as long as he keeps the lid down on internal politics.
1c – Kim Jong-un is competent. He knows that change is a’coming and he wants to help it along, probably less for wanting to do the right thing for his country and more for positioning himself for the aftermath. In this version his opponents are the ones who want to keep things Just The Way They Are. Kim needs to cut loose a lot of dead wood to make it possible for North Korea to have a chance at surviving with him at the helm.
How it plays out: Again, as long as there’s no major shake-up or threat to China-North Korea relations, and so long as the Chinese think Kim can control things, they’ll back his play. If Kim actually is a progressive force (and it’s hard to tell from the outside; Americans believed Khruschev to be as bad as Stalin, but after the Iron Curtain fell it was demonstrated he did more to liberalize and prepare Russia for a transition away from totalitarianism than anyone else before Gorbachev) the Chinese may not want him changing things too much; on the other hand, they would probably be willing to accept some change as opposed to having North Korea utterly collapse.
#2 – China. North Korea’s big brother, ally, trade partner, and loan shark. North Korea owes China big time, and China wants to collect (but not settle the debt; just see that the interest gets paid year after year). China does not want Japan to rearm, it does not want either North or South Korea to become independently or in partnership a huge new economic player in the region, it wants the US to pack up its toys and go home. It most emphatically does not want either the US or Russia lobbing thermonuclear devices at a perceived atomic threat from North Korea.
How it plays out: If North Korea remains stable and a client state of China, then the Chinese are indifferent to who runs it and how. If North Korea threatens to bolt the stable, or even worse, to provoke a medium size conventional or any kind of nuclear war, they’ll take steps to replace the North Korea leadership with leaders more understanding of China’s desires and wishes.
#3 – The United States. We actually rank higher on the chart of concerned countries than North Korea’s cousins to the south. Our geopolitical strategy does not afford us the luxury of being shown the door: We leave when we damn well feel like leaving. And while we’re happy to cut back and minimize expenditures on American bases in South Korea and Japan, that’s nowhere near the same thing as abandoning that region of the world. North Korea is no credible threat to us, but it could cause a lot of damage to South Korea or even Japan, and that could not be allowed to go unavenged in kind, so if Kim plays his nuclear card we trump it with our thermonuclear ace. And on the list of things China does not want to see happen, that’s just about at the very top.
How it plays out: China needs to keep the US reassured that it will prevent Kim and/or North Korea from doing anything stupid…but they can’t do so in an open manner that would undermine Kim. And the US has its own internal politics; at any given moment one party may want to exploit another party’s political vulnerability, which makes our reaction to any given situation a little more uncertain.
#4 – South Korea. Harkening back to the metaphor of soap operas, South Korea is the ugly duckling dumped by a suitor who goes on to blossom into a lovely, confident success while the suitor degenerates into a bitter, stalker ex. South Korea just isn’t that much into North Korea any more. Oh, it would be nice if the two countries could patch up their differences, and South Korea is willing to do business with the North, but in the end South Korea isn’t crying itself to sleep every night wishing it was reunited with the North (in fact, there’s a lot of problematic issues that make such reunification less and less desirable in the South’s eyes). South Korea keeps a wary eye on North Korea’s shenanigans, but they’re willing to tolerate a fair amount of saber-rattling and egregious bad behavior so long as they can make their own way in the world unmolested.
How it plays out: South Korea is grateful to the US role in the past as protector and mentor, but feels it’s outgrowing that relationship as well. So on the one hand they have no problems with things staying just the way they are but on the other wouldn’t mind North Korea calming down enough to give the US a face-saving excuse to withdraw from the Korean peninsula entirely. In the end — 10 years from now, a 100, a 1000; it really doesn’t matter on an Asian time scale — the US will go home and one way or another the Koreas will have to deal with China on their own. China, however, is leery of a unified Korea turning into another economic industrial superpower, and is willing to keep the family feud going…so long as it does not spill over to involve any neighbors.
#5 – Japan. Running our soap opera analogy into the ground, Japan is the nasty neighborhood busybody who is always stirring up trouble. Right now they’re on their best behavior as an aftermath of WWII, but all things must come to an end and there’s no reason to assume they would never rearm or renew their effort to militarily dominate Asia. While technically at peace with everybody in the region, they’re still the country everybody loves to hate, and any time a scapegoat is needed they can fill the bill quite nicely. If North Korea needs to create an external diversion to calm down internal politics, Japan might seem a better choice than South Korea. The problem with that is that it would pretty much demand the US retaliate because if the US didn’t retaliate then Japan would feel it had every right to jettison all post-WWII agreements and defend itself, and the last thing any of the other parties wants is Japan stomping around the Pacific and Far East again.
How it plays out: Japan feels it has every right to exploit the North Korea situation to get concessions from the US. The US needs to keep Japan happy because if they start rearming, China and Russia will be sure to respond. The danger is that North Korea might badly miscalculate — either assume it could do something on a limited scale that wouldn’t generate a significant international response, or something so overwhelming that no one would want to challenge them — in which case China faces the awkward choice of either defending North Korea from the US and Japan or else taking out the North Korean government themselves before the US or Japan take a swing at them.
#6 – Russia. The big bear supposedly sleeping in the background, but keeping a wary eye on everything. They don’t like China, they don’t like Japan, they don’t like the US, they would lift their vodka glasses in salute if something negative happened to all of them. Where Russia would get antsy is if things started to escalate out of hand; then they’re fully capable of stepping in and doing something about it before the US decides to recommit its military to the region. And if the provocation is unilateral nuclear aggression on North Korea’s part, they might decide to blitz the northern half of the peninsula just to make sure the contagion is sterilized. Not only would they feel justified, but it would be a helluva warning to the rest of the world.
How it plays out: They’re willing to let things go on the way they are because (a) the North Koreans haven’t done anything to ‘em and (b) it makes China do all the dirty work in the region. The moment they feel China no longer has a throttle hold on North Korea (in particular, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal) is when they’ll start stirring themselves to action. China knows this, but also knows it simply can’t waltz in and hammer in a new North Korean ruling cadre…yet…