North Korea After Kim Jong-il: Keep Calm and Carry On

December 19, 2011

Yesterday, North Korea’s official state news agency reported the death of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-il. He apparently died of heart failure, leaving behind his twenty-something son, Kim Jong-un, as his chosen successor. While experts expect some turbulence as Kim Jong-un takes power, they also note that the transition to the younger Kim has been underway for nearly three years. The leadership change carries the possibility of destabilization but also the possibility for a renewed diplomatic engagement as North Korea’s leadership looks for ways to reinvigorate the country’s failing economy. Veterans of both Republican and Democratic administrations are speaking out today to insist that negotiating with North Korea may be unpleasant, but it is also essential. The U.S. response demands a steady hand, calm instead of hyperbole and close coordination with regional partners – most importantly China and ally South Korea.

Although not complete, the transition of power from Kim Jong-il has been underway for almost three years. Paul Carroll of the Ploughshares Fund explains: “First, we must be clear about the situation. Yes, this is big. The nation has been under the tight grip of a clear dynasty and family dictatorship since World War II and the descendants of Kim Il Sung seem to remain firmly in control. As little as we know about how the DPRK works we have been shown over the past 2 1/2 years that there is a clear transition process in place. His son, Kim Jong Un has been selected as the next leader, and he has been given increasing responsibility and visibility over the past years. It is not a chaotic or free for all situation — quite the opposite. Clear roles have been assigned and authority transferred. Complete? No, but no such transition is ever final until it happens. Recent increases in relationships with China would indicate that Beijing — which treasures stability above all else — is invested in a safe and secure outcome to this story. So the carpet hasn’t been pulled out from under the regime – but the floor is slippery.” Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations expands, “Kim Jong-un has clearly been designated as the successor, fully backed by Kim Jong-il and his family. He has been named the head of Kim Jong-il’s funeral committee. It’s likely that there’s a collective leadership system in place to manage during the transition, but all developments over the course of the past year have signaled that Kim Jong-un is the expected successor, and that he has been gaining power within the North Korean system in preparation for taking on this role.” [Paul Carroll, 12/18/11. Scott Snyder, 12/19/11]

Expect some turbulence and acting out — need a steady hand to respond, not overreact. Jim Walsh, North Korea expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s security studies program, explains, “Everyone’s immediate refrain is ‘Oh, great, a tyrant is gone.’ But actually this is bad news, because it means we are entering a more dangerous phase in North Korean, South Korean and U.S. relations. Naturally, North Korea is going to be on the offensive. This young leader is going to have to prove his worth.” That possibility requires a steady, measured response. As former U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth notes, he would advise any successor  who deals with North Korea “to be patient, to understand that they have their perceptions of their national interest and we can’t ignore those, and that we have to stay engaged. We have to continue to be willing to talk to them… as difficult as that can be both politically and materially.” Humanitarian aid deliveries, which had been slated to resume this week, should continue as a show of calm. As Mark Goldberg of UN Dispatch writes, “Even before the death of Kim Jong Il was announced on Sunday, North Korea was going to be on the front pages of every major global newspaper this week. After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations the Americans and North Koreans were poised to ink a deal to release massive amounts of food aid… That food aid is pretty desperately needed.” [Jim Walsh via Reuters, 12/19/11. Stephen Bosworth via CFR.org, 11/7/11. Mark Goldberg, 12/19/11]

Now is the time to work with regional partners and redouble efforts to engage with the North Korean regime. The power shift represents an opportunity for engagement. As AP reports, “World governments are viewing the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il with wary optimism – a possibly destabilizing moment for the region as power passes to his son but also an opportunity for a new diplomatic start.” Carroll of the Ploughshares Fund explains: “[W]hile there is no need to panic, there is reason to be vigilant — and involved. As much as the nuclear situation has already been demanding additional engagement, a transition of power will demand it even more. Regional stability, future security, and the nuclear program’s status and future are all in play now to an even greater extent. The U.S. must find creative, non-threatening, and durable ways to engage with the DPRK. We must work with Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing to calm immediate concerns, determine near-term conditions and help chart a stable and more peaceful way forward. This is an opportunity for altering the dynamics of the region and the US-Pyongyang relationship. We must take full advantage of it.”

Coordination with China and South Korea are particularly important. As Reuters reports, “Victor Cha, a Korea expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Washington, said communication among China, the United States and South Korea was vital. ‘Because these are the three key players when it comes to instability in North Korea. And the Chinese have been reluctant to have any conversations on this,’ he said. ‘Now the situation really calls for it. It will be interesting to see how much the Chinese will be willing to have some sort of discussion.’” [AP, 12/19/11. Paul Carroll, 12/18/11. Reuters, 12/19/11]

What We’re Reading

The last U.S. troops left Iraq.

President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan returned to Karachi from Dubai, where he was being treated for a heart condition, amid a growing scandal about U.S. involvement in internal Pakistani affairs.

Syrian officials agreed to allow Arab League monitors into Syria to report on the government’s compliance with an agreement to end attacks on protestors and start open dialogue with dissidents.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership publicly criticized Egypt’s interim military administration for inciting the violent attacks in Cairo that has killed 10 and injured 400 in recent days.

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia said that the Russian political system needs to reform itself to gain greater legitimacy amongst the Russian people, in the wake of unprecedented protests against the ruling United Russia party.

Vaclav Havel, playwright, dissident, and the first President of both Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic after the collapse of the Communist regime, died at age 75.

Protestors from the southern Chinese town of Wukan announced they would expand their demonstrations against local authorities over land seizures for private development if the police did not release four protestors from custody.

Demonstrators in Kazakhstan are expanding their protests after oil workers in the city of Zhanaozen struck, leaving 11 dead in clashes with police.

Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the opposition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, declared victory in the recent presidential election after the final results, declaring Joseph Kabila the victor, were disputed.

Nigerian police arrested 14 members of the Islamist sect Boko Haram after a shootout in the northern city of Kano left four Boko Haram members and three police officers dead.

U.S. and Mexican officials reported that the powerful drug cartels are now laundering their profits by buying and shipping commodities from the U.S. back to Mexico and Colombia for resale.

Commentary of the Day

The New York Times analyzes the numbers on the Iraq War.

James Holmes discusses the potential for the end of the U.S.’s “two-ocean navy” strategy.

James Lamond analyzes the implications of enacting the 2012 defense authorization bill with respect to terror suspects and rule of law.

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