North Korea’s Uncertain Transition


In the wake of dictator Kim Jong-Il’s death and the succession of his young son Kim Jong-Un, a panel of experts said earlier this weekythat North Korea is unlikely to either collapse immediately or take any provocative actions right away, but that this coming spring may mark a more dangerous time, when the regime might even conduct further demonstrations of its nuclear capability.

While cautioning that no outsider truly understands what goes on inside one of the world’s most secretive and repressive regimes, the East-West Center panel agreed that the situation is likely to be quiet for a few months while the country is in official mourning and its new power structure solidifies.

The first preliminary sign of how the succession is proceeding may come with Kim Jong-Il’s state funeral on Dec. 28, said Pacific Forum CSIS President Ralph Cossa, when “all of the old ‘Kremlinologists’ will be brought back to try to get a sense of who is really in charge by photographs of who is sitting next to whom.”

The danger, the panelists said, may escalate around the time the country marks the 100th birth anniversary of its revolutionary founder and “eternal president,” Kim Il-Sung, on April 15. North Korean propaganda has for several years touted 2012 as the year the country will emerge as a “powerful and prosperous” nuclear state.

“The North Koreans have a game plan to demonstrate then to the world and their people their full nuclear weapons capability,” said Michael Green, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University and Japan Chair at CSIS, who was formerly a top National Security Council advisor on Asia. “What we know about their program suggests pretty strongly that they’re preparing for a third nuclear weapons test and maybe missile tests … and Kim Jong-Un will be under pressure next year to visibly move the nuclear weapons program forward. How he handles it, and the inevitable backlash … that’s when we may start getting a better sense of how dangerous the situation really is.”

Many commentators have noted that prior toKimJong-Il’s own succession, he was said to have orchestrated a number of risky provocations to establish his hard-line revolutionary credentials. Many wonder ifKimJong-Un may do the same thing ­– and indeed whether North Korean attacks last year on a South Korean warship and offshore island might have been a similar effort on his behalf.

But Green said he thinks the scenario of a military provocation because of internal strife is probably unlikely, and that the real danger lies more in the pressure on Kim Jong-Un to move ahead with nuclear weapons. “I think both Pyongyang and Beijingconcluded that if there were another provocation, that the South would shoot back,” he said. “That’s why I think a nuclear demonstration is more likely than some kind of commando attack.”

The most immediate question, the panelists agreed, is whether Kim Jong-Un will actually be able to hold power. They noted that while Kim Jong-Il had been groomed as his father’s successor for more than a decade,KimJong-Un has had less than two years of preparation and propaganda campaigns.

By the time Kim Jong-Il became leader, Green said, he had already held operational command and knew how to work the system in a way that his son probably does not. “Many people are nervous about whether Kim Jong-Un has the legitimacy, experience and skill, if you can call it that, to play the very dangerous ga me of provocation and confrontation that his father and grandfather did, which was to drive up to the brink and then back off before there’s a war,” he said.

The panelists also noted that at the same timeKimJong-Un was promoted to heir apparent,KimJong-Il also promoted his sisterKimKyong-Hui and brother-in-law Jang Song-Thaek to leading positions, along with senior general Ri Yong-Ho, suggesting some sort of regency or power-sharing arrangement.

“Kim Jong-Un doesn’t have experience, but everyone around him has experience in playing different countries against each other, so we have to have to assume that will trickle down,” Cossa said. “We just have to take everything we know with a grain of salt and just make sure we can distinguish between real opportunities and the other guy just playing us.”

Green noted that Kim Jong-Il’s “military first” policy helped keep him in power, but also meant that top military brass had significant say over his actions, and that scenario would likely continue with Kim Jong-Un.

East-West Center President Charles E. Morrison, who moderated the panel, raised the question of how the U.S.should best react toKimJong-Il’s death. The panelists agreed that the Obama administration seems to be taking the wisest course so far by avoiding provocation, keeping its options open and working closely with U.S.allies in the region.

Green said the U.S.should step up coordination with South Korea and Japan on scenarios in case of a North Korean collapse. Such planning has been “fairly advanced with South Korea, but that is not true with Japan, and China doesn’t want to talk about it at all,” he said. “We need to push harder with these discussions – there’s a lot we haven’t talked about in terms of what to do if this place unravels.”

Ambassador Ray Burghardt, director of the EWC’s East-West Seminars program and a former senior diplomat in Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere, said that a topic of constant debate in U.S. policy toward North Korea has been whether to try to force change, or whether maintaining stability in Northeast Asia is the main priority.

“Some are saying that this is a great opportunity to promote regime change, but we also have to listen to North Korea’s neighbors, who are worried about stability and wouldn’t want to do something provocative in the immediate future,” Burghardt said. “So the policy dilemma then becomes, if you’re preserving stability, does it mean you’re giving up long-term opportunities?”

Morrison asked what Kim Jong-Il’s death might mean for negotiations overNorth Korea’s nuclear program and the possible resumption of the so-called Six-Party Talks, which North Koreaquit in 2009 amid the international backlash over its test of an intercontinental missile and a second nuclear device.

The panelists agreed that even if North Koreareturns to negotiations over its nuclear weapons program, it is unlikely to actually give up its nukes anytime soon.

“North Korea already has a game plan in place, and my guess is it will continue along that plan –Kim Jong-Il did not put his brother-in-law and son in place to bring about change,” Cossa said. He said he expects that North Korea will put a portion of its uranium enrichment program up for negotiations but will cheat on any agreement “so it can have its cake and eat it too.”

At any rate, the panelists said, the objective of the talks has diminished to the point where they would not be aimed at making the situation better, but merely to keep it from getting worse.

“If we do go back to talks,” Cossa said, “I don’t think anyone really expects that it will really to lead to denuclearization, but probably provide the appearance of progress, which is what is important toChinaand others. And we’ve lowered the bar so much that things that are essentially meaningless will be hailed as progress.”

“So while everyone seems to be predicting doom, gloom and disaster as a result of this leadership change, I think it’s much more likely that we’re going to have more of the same,” he said. “At some time we’ll come back to the Six-Party Talks and pretend to be denuclearizing, while we’re really bargaining over how much it will cost us to get the North Koreans to at least pretend to behave.”

Green said that North Korea “is clearly interested in getting food aid from the U.S. and the South, but it’s also pretty clear that that they intend to continue moving ahead with their nuclear weapons program. The worry in South Korea is that they’ll pocket the aid and then sometime next year do a nuclear test anyway.”

The regime has followed a pretty clear cycle of provocation and negotiation, Cossa said, “and they’re now in the phase of behaving to see what they can get for not misbehaving, and that cycle usually lasts about six months or a year.”

An important variable, the panelists agreed, is the presidential elections coming up in both the U.S. and South Korea next year.

The Obama administration has so far gone along closely with the policies of conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, Burghardt said, but that could change if another party comes to power in either country.

Cossa said North Koreawill likely try to influence the South Korean election as it has in the past, “but that has invariably backfired on them, so the question is whether they’ve become smart enough to do something that works.”

A key question, the panelists agreed, is how China will react to North Korea’s leadership change, as the isolated country’s primary trading partner and protector.

Cossa said his Chinese sources tell him that China’s leadership believes Jang Song-Thaek will lead Kim Jong-Un in the direction of Beijing-style economic reforms. “But we’ll see in six months from now if Jang Song-Thaek is even still sitting next to Kim Jong-Un,” he said.

He added, however, that he has seen surprisingly open debate in China over North Korea policy. “It’s very clear that China supports Kim Jong-Un’s succession, and I suspect they will put all their eggs in that basket for a while,” he said. “…But if North Korea doesn’t deliver on the promises it’s made to China, that support may change.”

“North Korea’s provocations have been costly for China,” Burghardt observed. “They strengthened alliances between the U.S. and Japan, the U.S.and South Korea, and even to an extent Japan and South Korea.… And with elections coming up in South Korea, further North Korean provocations could increase the chances of Lee Myung-Bak being replaced by another government that the Chinese and North Koreans don’t like. So keeping North Korea’s finger off the trigger long enough to get a more so-called ‘progressive’ government in South Korea would certainly be desirable from China’s point of view.”

Ultimately, all the panelists believe that change is bound to come to North Koreasometime – the question is when and how.

Burghardt said it doesn’t look to him like Kim Jong-Un’s succession “is really a sustainable plan.” There is much more outside communication getting into North Korea than when KimJong-Il took power in 1994, he said, “and a lot more North Koreans are aware of how bad their situation is. … But the bad news is that there is no civil society at all [to support change.]”

“I would not underestimate the value of fear,” Cossa said, “but I have a hard time believing the North Korean state will survive as long as Kim Jong-Un’s lifetime. I believe it will dissolve and be absorbed into the South, but nobody knows how or when that will occur.”

East-West Center

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Established by the U.S. Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

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