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Will China Take Over North Korea?

Yet Kim’s legitimacy is derived from the fact that his dad, Kim Il Sung, founded the North Korean state, so it is significant he was a no-show for the big celebration in Pyongyang, especially because he has appeared at every previous anniversary parade. More important, the parades are important military affairs and he depends on the military as his base of support. Kim refers to his songun -- army first -- policy, but for him the military is first, last, and everything in between. In fact, his primary title is Chairman of the National Defense Commission. Therefore, the 60th anniversary event was not something he would ever skip on a whim. The Nelson Report, the Washington must-read e-mail alert, noted yesterday that Kim Yong Nam has now begun to refer to Kim Jong Il in the past tense.

So what comes next? None of the three known sons of Kim is considered suitable as a successor. In any event, Dear Leader has not groomed any of them as his dad groomed him over the course of decades. Because the military is the only institution in society that has the ability to accomplish its aims, many assume that one or more general officers will take over when Kim passes the scene. The betting is that a committee of them will end up running North Korea.

That will undoubtedly make Beijing happy. As an initial matter, China’s leaders, who govern a country of 1.5 billion people from their perch on a nine-man group (the Politburo Standing Committee), will undoubtedly feel comfortable dealing with another committee -- rather than one unpredictable runt -- in Pyongyang.

A collective military government would be a natural result of Kim Jong Il’s demise.  Although he began in the 1980s to purge North Korean officials friendly to the Chinese, Beijing has for more than a decade cultivated Kim’s generals, some of whom now keep their personal assets in China. Moreover, at lower levels the links between the Korean People’s Army and the People’s Liberation Army are relatively strong, especially because junior officers are suspected of conducting unsavory business across their nations’ common border. In any event, it is Chinese aid that sustains Kim’s military, which “could neither bark nor bite” without Beijing. China provides some 90 percent of the North’s oil, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of its food.

The Chinese are so confident of their links to Korea that they have recently spurned initiatives from Seoul to talk about what to do in case of instability in the North. The turndown is an indication that Beijing does not believe it will have to implement its plans to send a military force south, establish order, and either annex the DPRK or, more probably, leave behind a compliant government. After all, it has already lined up its supporters in Pyongyang and sees little reason to either share information or let any other nation have access in the case of an emergency.

When Kim, now 66 and afflicted with diabetes and heart disease among other ailments, dies or becomes incapacitated, China is bound to pick up surviving regime elements and fashion a Beijing-friendly government in Pyongyang. Korean unification, a dream of almost every person south of the Demilitarized Zone, will be set back even further. China is already home to at least two million ethnic Koreans, and Beijing looks set to exert its dominion over many more of them. You can, if you want to pick an analogy from today’s headlines, think of North Korea as China’s South Ossetia.