international analysis and commentary

Life after Kim Jong Il: speculating on North Korea’s uncertainties


The sudden death of Kim Jong Il has generated wariness and anxiety in and around the Korean peninsula. Although North Korea’s collapse has been forecast for a couple of decades, this time might just be different. The power transition within the Kim dynasty, from father Jong Il to son Jong Un, could unleash political bickering leading to bureaucratic infighting, a government collapse or even a military coup. In these uncertain times, possible scenarios for the future of North Korea are as disparate as peaceful reunification with the South to full-fledged regional war.

Transition and succession are particularly delicate within authoritarian regimes.  Kim Jong Il had time to learn on the job before inheriting power in 1994, following the death of his father Kim Il Sung. Thus, the gradual transfer of power guaranteed a smooth transition for Pyongyang in the mid-1990s. Today, little is known about the abilities and mastery of Kim Jong Un since he was “blessed to inherit power” only just over a year ago.

Nonetheless, the young new leader stands in good company within the reigns of power. His aunt and uncle, Kim Kyong Hui and Jan Song Taek are, respectively, a four star general and the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. This troika can thus guarantee regime continuity and collective leadership even during such challenging times.

Once continuity can be guaranteed domestically, Kim Jong Un faces relatively few external infringements. Stability is the primary goal of the international community and particularly of the key actors: South Korea, China, the US. As much as North Korea is denounced as a “rogue state”, regional powers want the status quo to prevail. The risk of an inflow of refugees and economic migrants into bordering China and South Korea or the potential for cross-border proliferation of nuclear weapons prevents any actual support for change.

However, Pyongyang is rightly perceived as a threat not only for its plutonium-based nuclear weapons program, the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenal and a range of ballistic missiles capable of hitting South Korea and Japan, but also for its murky relations with other authoritarian regimes and perhaps even terrorists. North Korea remains the most militarized country in the world and possesses the fourth biggest army. Thus, Pyongyang has in the past managed to play the role of provocateur, astutely winning concessions from the international community. The regime’s unwillingness to back down on its uranium enrichment program, coupled with the sinking of the Ch’ŏnan corvette and Pyongyang’s shelling of the South Korean Yŏnp’yŏng Island in 2010, exemplifies North Korea’s provocative behavior. In short, nuclear proliferation and sudden attacks are used as a way to compel external powers to assist economically with energy resources and humanitarian aid. 

Unfortunately, strategic concerns prevent the same international powers from cooperating effectively to prevent proliferation and deter provocative military actions. The freezing of the Six Party Talks is a case in point, with China, South Korea, the United States, Russia and Japan unable to keep Pyongyang at the negotiating table.

Kim Jong Un’s foreign policy directives will likely restart from this unsolved issue. Breakthroughs should not be expected and 2012 will probably see the young Kim concentrating on domestic issues and emphasizing the relationship with China. Even here, tough decisions may lie ahead: the bilateral relationship remains indeed vital for Pyongyang: since 2010, Chinese policy has assisted Pyongyang more than in the past, and it seems to have endorsed Kim Jong Un as a suitable heir. Furthermore, China has heavily invested in physical infrastructure in North Korea to extract coal, iron ore and other minerals. While continued Chinese intervention in support of economic development could probably prevent social unrest in North Korea, it is viewed with suspicion even by Pyongyang. This scenario is juxtaposed to the possibility of a “German-style” unified Korea under the auspices of Seoul and backed by Washington. But this outcome, in turn, is obviously opposed by China.

Relations between the two Koreas happen to be at a historical low at this point, having worsened following last year’s bombing. Since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak came to power in 2008, bilateral relations have gradually deteriorated. At the news of Kim Jung Il’s death, the US and South Korean Combined Forces Command put in place a contingency plan to prepare for North Korea’s collapse. This episode should be evaluated in light of President Obama’s pivotal foreign policy shift to the Pacific: in this context, Korea becomes an even more strategic area in which Washington can increase its military presence and conduct military exercises to demonstrate its capabilities. All told, in any case, stability in the region remains paramount for all countries concerned.