Other regional players such as Japan and South Korea will be nervous, but maintain their close alliance with the United States. China has more of a problem. It wants North Korea to change, to give up its nuclear weapons, and to stop creating crises (like the two last year) that endanger Chinese security. But China is also afraid that a collapse of the North Korean government might create chaos on its borders. Ironically, while China provides the economic and food assistance that North Korea desperately needs, China has limited leverage over the “hermit kingdom.”
North Korea has the paradoxical “power of the weak.” In certain bargaining situations, as I argue in The Future of Power, weakness and the threat that a partner will collapse can be a source of bargaining power. A bankrupt debtor who owes $1,000 has little power, but if it owes $1 billion, it may have considerable bargaining power – witness the fate of institutions judged “too big to fail” in the 2008 financial crisis.
As the Financial Times once observed, Kim Jong-il “is probably the only world leader who can make Beijing look powerless…Diplomats say Mr. Kim brazenly plays on Chinese fears. If the Chinese do not pump aid into his crumbling economy, he argues, they will face refugees pouring across the border and possible unrest.”