North Korea Holds China Hostage

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (left) meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao in August 2010. Ju Peng / Xinhua-Landov

As bad as North Korea’s behavior was in 2010, the coming year could be even worse. The North Korean regime is in a state of upheaval as dictator Kim Jong-il, belatedly recognizing his own mortality, attempts to transfer power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. The Kim family has a tradition of rallying domestic support by raising external threat levels—hence the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, the maximum-impact unveiling of a previously secret uranium-enrichment program, and the shelling of a South Korean island village.*

The Chinese, Pyongyang’s main protection against total collapse, privately confess to being sick of their neighbor’s disruptive demands for attention. But China is in the midst of its own transition as President Hu Jintao’s untested heir apparent, Xi Jinping, prepares for his turn at the top, and the regime strains to avoid embarrassing last-minute screw-ups. Although the Dear Leader’s rule couldn’t survive long without Chinese aid and trade, there’s no incentive for Beijing even to threaten to cut that lifeline right now, since everyone knows the regime can’t afford economic chaos and regional instability in 2011. No one is likely to stop the Kims if they continue seeking confrontation with the West.

*Editor’s note: On Monday, North Korea dropped its threat to retaliate against military drills by South Korea off the island of Yeonpyeong, which Pyongyang attacked last month, killing four people. The United Nations Security Council had been having emergency meetings to defuse the tension over the live-fire drills, which Washington said were merely defensive exercises about which North Korea had been notified.