The Death of Kim Jong Il: Now What?


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The Death of Kim Jong Il: Now What?
By John Delury and Chung-in Moon

After 17 years at the helm of North Korea, the Dear Leader is no more, and suddenly we are faced with a reality on which so much "contingency planning" has been based. So, what can we expect of the next chapter in the North's political history? And how should the key players—South Korea, the US and China—navigate this sensitive and critical transition period?

In April, we argued in an essay for 38 North that the succession process appeared to be going smoothly; for now, a few days after the death of Kim Jong Il, we stand by that assessment. We see no evidence of near-term political crisis or confusion as to the new pecking order; no sign of immediate factional struggles, popular revolt, or systemic breakdown. In this, what Time magazine has called "the Year of the Protestor," when dictators were overthrown, tried and shot, there remains no hint of a Pyongyang Spring to come. Kim died of natural causes.

Why is near-term crisis unlikely? For the same reason that a senior North Korean official told one of us that comparing North Korea to Libya is "laughable:" the country's political system is unified around the new face of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, the son of Kim Jong Il and, most important, the grandson of founding father Kim Il Sung. Think of him surrounded, and protected, by three inner circles. The first circle is the ruling family—here, the key sign of unity is that Kim Jong Un's aunt and her powerful husband Jang Songtaek both received promotions along with the heir-apparent at the historic Party conference last year. The second inner circle is the Korean Worker's Party itself, which has been going through a period of resuscitation in recent years. The revitalized network of Party members, who now carry cell phones and are eager to travel abroad, see their prospects linked to the success of the grandson.

The third circle is the military – the Korean People's Army – which would be the logical competitor for power with the next generation Kim, but here too, there is no sign of high-level disaffection, like that seen in many Arab Spring states. The military has been the primary beneficiary of the North's "military first politics" campaign that Kim Jong Il initiated in 1995. In addition, Kim has co-opted the military through numerous incentives, while controlling it through his close confidents. So far, the military has pledged its unfailing loyalty to Kim Jong Un, whose highest title is vice chairman of the central military committee of the Korean Worker's Party.

But what then of the outer circle, the 20 million or so North Koreans not in the Party, not members of the "core" class? Kim Jong Il was not beloved like his father, and pragmatic North Korean civilians are likely to take a wait-and-see approach to the new leadership group. Kim Jong Un bears a striking physical resemblance to his grandfather, evoking nostalgia for North Korea's halcyon days, and people may hope this starts a new, better chapter for their country. Even those who may wish to rebel have no networks or organizations through which to do so. There are not even the rudiments of civil society to organize resistance. So for now, all signs point to what the state media is saying: Kim Jong Un is the "outstanding leader of our party, army and people" and "great successor" to his father.

The Long-term Dilemma: Security Plus Prosperity

So in the near term, the chances of political crisis, let alone regime collapse, appear remote. But in the medium to longer term, the new Kim Jong Un leadership is likely to face a dilemma, and this should be the focal point of international responses to the transition process. It's a dilemma created by two mutually conflicting goals that the regime has set for itself.

Pyongyang has been loudly promising its citizens that 2012 marks the year of North Korea's emergence as a "strong and prosperous great nation" (Gangsong Daeguk). If Kim Jong Il could claim nothing else, he did achieve at least one thing for North Korea—the ultimate "strength" of nuclear deterrence. Now, it's up to his son Kim Jong Un to achieve the other half of the equation: prosperity. Over the past few years, there have been unmistakable signs of a push to improve the national economy—from growing trade with and investment from China, revived plans for special economic zones and official propaganda promising to improve the people's welfare. In numerous direct contacts with North Korean officials, including a visit to Pyongyang a couple of months ago, both of us have witnessed these developments first-hand.

But the issue at stake is whether Kim Jong Un can enhance North Korea's prosperity without undermining the source of its strength – its nuclear weapons program. Food aid and foreign economic assistance are urgently needed to ensure a smooth path to the first year of Gangsung Daeguk. Comprehensive economic development would also require foreign investment, trade, and financing; all of that would require an initial loosening and eventual lifting of the sanctions regime that surrounds the North Korean economy like a barbed wire fence. Getting that sanctions regime lifted will require substantive nuclear concessions on Pyongyang's part.

It is in that moment, the transition from security-first to security-plus-prosperity, when the unity of the North Korean political system would come under strain. Elements in the military might oppose sacrificing their prize possession – nuclear weapons capability. Hardliners will argue it would be a fool's errand to give up the ultimate weapon, leaving their country exposed to an Iraqi or Libyan fate. Therefore, the path to getting the North over that hump starts now, with building constructive relationships with their new leadership, and avoiding the risk of playing into the hands of hardliners.

International Response: Open Channels

So, the essential question is, what should the international community do? The most prudent course for key players in the region is to re-open or expand channels with Pyongyang in the days, weeks and months to come. The better we know the new leadership, the better we can respond to events as they unfold. For now, we expect Pyongyang to turn inward, focusing on the funeral and mourning the loss of their leader. And Kim Jong Un may take a backseat even for a period of three years (in accordance with Korean mourning traditions, and the precedent set by his father after his grandfather's death in 1994). The more that Seoul, Washington and Beijing can do to draw out the new North Korean leaders as Kim Jong Un receives further promotions – Kim Jong Il's 70th birthday is celebrated in February and Kim Il Sung's 100th in April – the better.

Fortunately, the US has some modest positive momentum to build on in crafting this kind of proactive diplomatic outreach. US-North Korea bilateral talks have been held in Pyongyang, New York, Geneva and Beijing on issues ranging from humanitarian aid to denuclearization. The timing of these revived channels is fortuitous, and Washington should make the most of them, signaling readiness to work with the new powers in Pyongyang in a constructive fashion. The key precedent is the bilateral negotiations between the US and North Korea that were thrown into doubt by the sudden death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. At that time, officials in the administration of President Bill Clinton stayed engaged, and sure enough, Kim Jong Il came around to signing the Agreed Framework, which froze the North Korean nuclear program for the rest of the 1990s. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be wise to take a page out of President Clinton's handling of that critical moment, and her measured, constructive comments in response to Kim Jong Il's passing are an encouraging sign.

Seoul's reaction is even more crucial, and delicate. The South Korean public is divided over inter-Korean relations, and President Lee Myung-bak will take a hit whichever way he steps. But there have been increasing signs of fatigue with a hard-line approach, and this president, who has proven his conservative credentials, is uniquely positioned for a kind of "Nixon in China" moment. That may be a bridge too far for the Blue House. An expression of condolence would have been a bold statement of Korean solidarity in the face of ideological division, but the Unification Minister announced only "allowing" an unofficial delegation. But at a minimum, prudence would dictate avoiding any sign of an offensive or threatening posture. Self-restraint in Seoul will encourage moderation in Pyongyang.

Beijing, it turns out, probably has the best model for how to handle North Korea, particularly in sensitive times like the present. Chinese realists spend far less time thinking about scenarios of North Korea's collapse, and instead, keep diplomatic channels open at the same time that they support economic opening. China also has military-to-military ties to the North, and can exert at least some leverage when it comes to moderating military behavior. In an optimistic scenario, China, South Korea and the US could use this changing of the guard to embark on a coordinated, constructive engagement policy to normalize, and denuclearize, the Korean Peninsula.

For years, political analysts and military planners have discussed "contingency plans" for after the death of Kim Jong Il. But now, with Kim actually dead and no sign of chaos or collapse, what we need is prudent and realistic diplomacy that lays foundations today for progress tomorrow.

John Delury is Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at Yonsei University, Seoul, and a book review editor for Global Asia. Chung-in Moon is Professor of Political Science at Yonsei University and Editor-in-Chief of Global Asia.