What Not to Do About North Korea
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What Not to Do About North Korea

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The announcement of Kim Jong-un as Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army is one more step in the process of Pyongyang’s efforts to consolidate power as quickly as possible after the sudden death of Kim Jong-il. It’s fairly certain that the proliferation of pronouncements and titles given to the young Kim are manifestations of a terribly rushed succession process. Something that they hoped could be done over the course of a decade or more has suddenly been set in motion.

Many Western analysts believe North Korea has been planning such a succession for a long time and they are therefore methodically carrying out the power transition step-by-step. I don’t think this is right.
 
The funeral for Kim Jong-il was carried out methodically because the regime had a blueprint from the 1994 death of Kim Il Sung. They have no blueprint for a rushed dynastic succession. They are making it up each day. Some argue that a “leadership by committee” should work in North Korea to compensate for the inexperience of the junior Kim. But never in the history of North Korea have they ever ruled through compromise within a committee. This would be a feasible outcome only if we completely discounted all past history and knowledge of the regime. 
 
Some, meanwhile, say the leadership will survive because all the leaders within the system want to survive. We could have said the same thing about all the fallen leaders in the Arab Spring, and yet they didn’t.
 
Many analysts have pitched different theories about what may be happening inside the dark kingdom. And even more analysts have mused about what policies the United States, South Korea and China should be undertaking. For a start, some have said the U.S. and South Korea should have had better intelligence about the elder Kim’s state of health. Others, myself included, say that China will align itself even more closely to Pyongyang in order to effect a successful transition.
 
Because there’s so much uncertainty about the situation, it might be more useful to think about things that the United States, South Korea and China should not be doing. Often in international relations, the most likely cause of instability when clear information is absent is miscalculation on the part of different parties. So what must the parties avoid going forward?
 
First, the United States shouldn’t be treating the situation in North Korea as “normal.” An early State Department podium remark in the aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s death intimated that all was calm and that a leadership transition to Kim Jong-un was predictably underway. This was unhelpful on two counts. For a start, it implied that the United States had already recognized the young Kim as the new leader when others in the region, including allies, had not. 
 
But it also gave the impression that Washington wasn’t treating the situation seriously and was distracted by other issues, such as the budget battle, the withdrawal from Iraq and starting Christmas vacations. Washington should also not assume that either Beijing or Seoul will remain in a wait-and-see mode with North Korea. China sees as much opportunity in the current vulnerability of North Korea as they see uncertainty. And for Seoul, there’s nothing that hits at the core interests of Koreans more than the opportunity for potential change in North Korea. South Korea is a stalwart ally, but this is about blood, not politics.
 
Second, China shouldn’t dismiss dialogue with South Korea and the United States about the evolving situation in the North. Thus far, China has reacted with typical closed-mindedness, revealing little information that it might have about Kim Jong-un and expressing unconditional support for the leadership transition. The South Korean six-party negotiator, Lim Sungnam, took the initiative to reach out to the Chinese in the aftermath of Kim’s death, and yet Beijing did little to take advantage of this diplomacy to enhance dialogue and build trust with Seoul. 
 
This is unfortunate. Whatever China may see as its interests in North Korea, it won’t be able to achieve them without cooperation from Seoul and Washington. As Beijing continues to support the current leadership transition, it shouldn’t allow itself to be seen as an advocate of keeping the peninsula divided. Many posit that a “leadership-by-committee” is the likely direction of the post Kim Jong-il government. But never before in North Korea’s history of totalitarian, personality-cult leadership has anything like this been attempted. Should this fail, it would hurt Beijing’s long-term position in the region dramatically if it were seen as the last great power to support a divided Korea.
 
Finally, South Korea must avoid the temptation to act unilaterally. This is hard for Koreans to hear. After all, this is their peninsula, and while political flux in North Korea is a foreign policy issue for China and the United States, it’s about life and death for Koreans. But in every scenario game I have played on exactly this contingency, the spark for major power conflict in Korea has been South Korean unilateral actions that spark an action-reaction spiral between the United States and China. 
 
This must be avoided at all costs. Seoul must also avoid Chinese efforts to use the current situation in the North to lure Seoul away from Washington. South Korea is in a vulnerable situation: it’s desperate for information about the situation in North Korea and the Chinese are the only ones who have eyes on the ground. Beijing may try to exploit this vulnerability and cut deals with Seoul without Washington. 
 
This would be a grave mistake. Not because of the damage to the alliance, but because South Korean and Chinese interests are not in sync – China in the end doesn’t want to see a unified Korea; South Korea does. This can’t be forgotten and it informs all of Beijing’s policies to the two Koreas going forward.
 
In the weeks and months ahead, others will no doubt offer much advice on what governments should do. But with North Korea, remembering some important don’ts could be just as important.
 
 
Victor Cha is a professor at Georgetown University and Senior Adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared at CSIS Pacnet.

 

 

 

Comments
29
Matt
March 15, 2013 at 09:23

It is a defensive posture that is how it will stay. Sieze the nukes, chem, bio and a little EOD. That is it the defensive posture to deal with rouge units during the collapse that make contact. And keep the border sealed. It is the UN problem if they want send peacekeepers.

Bob Dillon
February 14, 2013 at 06:34

A rising symbol refines the fume. South Korea interferes! South Korea railroads a fatal punch. South Korea braves the bottle opposite the atheist. An insulting youth showers North Korea within a matrix.

[...] What Not to Do About North Korea [...]

gonsgon
January 18, 2012 at 05:19

Confucius wanted to retire in ancient Korea, huge part of the mainland had been Korean territory, futuristic United Korea might re-claim the forgotten land. What happened to Xuiahn,Shanghai,Peking district, many Koreans live there for thousands of years, Korean ancestors have found acupuncture, Taoism, tons of healing herbs, Chinese calendar, weiqi,go,baduk game, from the farmland, what happened to near Beijing, named “Korean castle”,surrounded Beijing, which menas, ruled by ancient Korea, but China did clean up anything smell Korea, changed the name of castle, rewrote history as Manchu.. Ching is manchu, closer to Korean,Mongol,not Han .. why China covers, hide so much of Korean history, the whole world find out soon or later~

Papa John
January 17, 2012 at 09:47

@john chan,
Oh boy, I can see you are losing your debate against a Korean lady. Everyone, who has a right mind, can see that your counter-comment s don’t have an iota of truth in there. If the living conditions in SKorea is so bad as you said, then why tons of mainland Chinese got caught sneaking illegally in Skorea and Japan in a large number every year? This one alone could tell you are merely a big liar.

John Chan
January 17, 2012 at 09:08

@Jenny Park,
You are merely laying out bigotry statements to vent your personal unbalance emotion. There is not a single word of truth in your comment. On the other hand if you replace China with S. Korea in your statements, they fit the description of S. Korea perfectly, i.e.
1. SK is a dirty place to live, People are brainwashed morally corrupted. Money and cosmetic appearance are worshiped above anything. Koreans in general have no basic human rights under the occupation of a westerner.
2. SK under the instruction of it westerner master to harass its northern kin. All SK male and female rather spend money on cosmetic surgery instead of giving the money to relieve the hunger of their northern kin.
3. SK is bent on the imperial path of their ex-master Japanese, and waged war to attack their independent minded northern kin who refused to live under the foreign occupation.

Indeed the American has to stay in SK and Japan for a long long time to keep these two nations in tight leash.

Henry003
January 17, 2012 at 06:22

North east project is not a political ploy by CCP tp legitimized their hold on Manchurain. It is attempt to clarify and describe the historical record of Dongbei.
To claim that Dongbei is not Chinese is nothing but revisionist history.
Dongbei with the bird totem(Phoenix) and Huaxia with dragon totem is personification of Chinese nation
Dongbei was first conquered by China during the Qin dynasty. Later follow on dynasty as Wei,Yan, Han Dongbei claim Dongbei as part of territory. Just like the flow and ebb of History.Chinese control over Dongbei is receded and reclaimed over the centuries

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balhae

I stand on my statement. Korean nationalist claim that Balhae or Bohai is a korean kingdom is not true. There is no Balhae historical account, since most of them were destroyed during Khitan invasion.
Both Silla and Koryeo historical record doesn’t mention Balhae as Korean kingdom.
Even Samkuk Sagi doesn’t consider Balhae as Korean kingdom.
The narrative that Balhae is Korean kingdom surfaces in the 18th century after the Qing and Joseon dynasty sign a treaty and confirm Yalu as the boundary between 2 Nations,Most Korean nationalist bemoan the so called lost of the territory based on Korean ethnic on both side of Yalu river
Jang Ji-yeon (1762–1836), journalist, writer of nationalist tracts, and organizer of nationalist societies, published numerous articles arguing that had the Joseon officials considered Balhae part of their territory,

Chinese historians insist Balhae to be composed of the Balhae ethnic group, which was mostly based on the Mohe. Historically, the Jurchens (later renamed the Jin,Manchus), considered themselves as sharing ancestry with the Mohe. According to the Book of Jin (金史), the history of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, the Jurchens proclaimed “The Jurchens and Balhae are from the same family”. (女直渤海本同一家)[16

Going back to Goguryeo as a Korean kingdom is again a fiction and concoction of Kim Busik in order to flatter the Goryeo dynasty founder who is coming from merchant class and need to legitimized their hold on power by grafting his dynasty with koguryo.
The population of Koguryeo is Tungustic race a common race in north east china . Korean come from Koryeo,Silla which again come from the federation of Sam Han a Jimaek people(proto Korean)

No how can they claim that Koryeo is successor of Koguryeo when there is 300 years of gap between Koryeo and Koguryeo
They Korean nationalist has problem here. How to reconcile this 300 years of gap and their solution is to claim Balhae as Korean kingdom. Aided and abetted by western historian and academic who sympathized with the concept national independence and freedom Most of them hate China anyway.

The only written source about Koguryeo is from Chinese side and there is no mention of thousand of refugee founded the Balhae kingdom.
Tang was so embittered by the killing of half million of their countrymen by the Koguryeo. That when they finally destroyed Koguryeo, the exhumed the grave of every Koguryeo including Ulchi Mundok and burned the corpses. And swore that Koguryeo should never rise again. It unlikely that they allow refugee to found a new kingdom

Jenny Park
January 17, 2012 at 02:05

Instead of convincing me with reasons and facts, you were just spewing out lies after lies and empty boasts of how great China is. So tell me what I said above about China is wrong? Here is what your China is great about:

First off, China under CCP rulers is a dirty place to live. People are brainwashed morally corrupted. Money is worshiped above anything else. The CCP rulers are indeed little emperors. Chinese people in general have no basic human rights. Tibetans, Xingjian local people and Mongolians are even worse in their own lands.

Secondly, China under CCP is a big bad bully toward its neighbors. Even, the fellow communist country, Vietnam turned its gun against its bad comrade in the North. I am sure once the North Korea would do the same when it has a chance. “The help” China offered only for its advantages to keep them as a buffer zone. NKorea and Vietnam knew this well.

Finally, we live in 21th century, don’t we? As long as China doesn’t respect any established international norms and rules, there will not be a peaceful and harmonious Asia. What we are seeing on recent developments, China is bent on the imperial path of the Japanese in the last century shouting for the return of “imaginary lost territories”. I am afraid that Americans have to stay in Asia-Pacific to keep the greedy China in check for years to come.

Tea Tarik
January 16, 2012 at 18:21

China is keen for the two Korea to be united as one but She is worried of US exploitation of a united greater Korea against her.
So at the moment, she prefers maintaining the status quo.
In a couple of decades, when China becomes the preeminent economy and her defense and offense is more able to ward off US interference, she will welcomes unification on the Korean peninsula.

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