It’s hard to feel disappointed by Kim Jong-il’s death. His policies led to the starvation of millions of people, as well as the advent of the most dangerous nuclear rogue state. But his death still presents renewed challenges to the United States and other countries in 2012.
Kim’s regime was a menace to its people, neighbors, and much of the rest of the international community. Its hyper-militarism, economic mismanagement, and inability to implement major economic reforms due to fear of undermining the country’s political dictatorship made North Korea dependent on foreign assistance. Kim and his cronies engaged in diverse forms of state-sponsored crime including the kidnapping of foreign nationals (the Japanese abductees are best known since Tokyo raises them as a barrier to further engagement with Pyongyang); trafficking in narcotics, people, and many other forms of contraband; and the counterfeiting of foreign currency (especially well-crafted $100 bills). Kim managed to blackmail the United States, South Korea, and Japan with threats of conducting more provocations while offering (and then reneging on) pledges of good behavior in return for sufficient compensation.
The process of dynastic succession is now proceeding in Pyongyang under circumstances much less favorable than during the first dynastic transfer after the death in 1994 of Kim Il-sung, the regime’s god-like founder. Although Kim Il-sung died suddenly, he had prepared his son for years to succeed him. In contrast, Kim Jong-il’s health abruptly deteriorated before he had properly designated a successor and prepared him to fulfill that function. Although Kim Jong-Il seems to have recovered from his 2008 stroke, he had been struggling to establish favorable conditions for his third son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The early death of his father means that Kim Jong-un will experience severe disadvantages due to his limited experience, fragile power base, political barriers to needed economic reforms, and the military’s elevated role in politics (Kim Jong-un’s recent promotion to general may have hurt rather than helped his standing with other military leaders). The troubled conditions surrounding the political succession could spell trouble for others since the regime’s increasingly provocative behavior might be designed to rally support behind the Kim dynasty.
Dealing with North Korea’s wayward regime is one of Asia’s most important security issues. The Korean Peninsula represents the one global hotspot where the direct interests of all the Asian-Pacific powers – China, Japan, Russia, and the United States – intersect. Achieving peace and prosperity in northeast Asia requires solving the Korean conflict, which manifests itself most dangerously in North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery, as well as Pyongyang’s periodic provocations against South Korea.
Last year was a terrible one for security on the Korean Peninsula, with three events proving particularly troubling. In March 2010, North Korea launched an unprovoked attack on South Korea, firing a torpedo from a submarine that sank the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette. Although the North Korean government denies sinking the ship and killing 46 sailors, the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group reached this conclusion based on an examination of the damaged vessel, as well as the accounts of the survivors, who recalled near simultaneous explosions of the kind that would result from a torpedo explosion. They also found the remnants of the torpedo in the wreck of the Cheonan that matched a North Korean CHT-02D type torpedo.