Robert Gates will pass on one of the most enduring security challenges in the region: North Korea. The North’s economy is in tough shape, the result of poor policy decisions, an inefficient communist system, bad weather, and economic sanctions. For years, analysts have predicted the collapse of North Korea, yet the country continues to plod along, fearful of economic reform, despite Beijing’s encouragement to adopt its economic model.
North Korea is also in the midst of a leadership transition as Kim Jong-il seeks to pass the reins to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. After Kim Jong-il’s health scare in 2008, the regime fast-tracked the transition, promoting Kim Jong-un to important positions within the party and the military including four-star general, despite having never served in the armed forces. He is only in his late 20s, and it’s unclear whether the old guard in the military and party will accept him once his father dies. Several Kim family members have been promoted, in particular, Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law to ensure the transition continues upon Kim Jong-il’s passing. The transition may proceed more smoothly than many expect as elites have a lot to lose should it go badly but no one knows for sure. In any case, major policy shifts are unlikely until this power transition is solidified.
Finally, there’s the North Korean nuclear weapons programme. Pyongyang tested nuclear weapons in 2006 and 2009, and despite its current willingness to return to talks, few hold out hope that North Korea will ever give them up. From North Korea’s vantage, it resides in a tough neighbourhood, uncertain of any security commitment from China, and sees nuclear weapons addressing important security concerns. Pyongyang also maintains a robust ballistic missile programme that will, one day, be able to reach the United States.
The dilemma for Washington, Seoul, and others in the region is what to do next. Though no one is willing to recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, at some point, it will be necessary to restart a dialogue with Pyongyang to address a host of other issues. However, North Korea must also refrain from further provocations like sinking the Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeong island, and demonstrate greater willingness to work for peace in the region to make talks productive. Unfortunately for Secretary Panetta, there will be no easy solutions to any of these issues.
Terence Roehrig is a Professor in National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College.