Though Kim Jong-un reemerged after disappearing from public view for nearly three weeks, speculations about his health and succession persist. Will North Korea have a smooth leadership transition? How will it affect regional security at a critical moment? What will China and the United States do? These will be some of the important questions in every observer’s mind if Kim were to die suddenly.
Undoubtedly, Kim’s demise will inject a new dose of uncertainty to a region already rife with conflicts and will exacerbate U.S.-China strategic rivalry in East Asia.
A joint U.S.-China effort to ensure the stability of the North Korean regime and East Asia, in general, is desirable but unlikely given the current distrust between the two powers. The United States and China will compete for currying favor with the new leadership and shaping the development of North Korea. Both countries will take advantage to enhance their strategic interests in the region. Denuclearization and a strong foothold in East Asia are Washington’s main interests, while stability and gradual reduction of U.S. influence in the region are Beijing’s.
U.S.-China relations were already in terrible shape in recent years. They are further strained as the two powers are engaged in a diplomatic tussle over the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea remain high. Cross-strait relations continue to deteriorate as Tsai Ing-wen begins her second term. China has become more assertive in the South China Sea, allegedly sinking a Vietnamese fishing trawler and creating two new administrative districts in controversial areas. Differences over their North Korea policies will add fuel to the fire in U.S.-China strategic rivalry.