The motives behind North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s ‘unofficial’ visit to China last week may not be that hard to decipher. Most analysts suspect he went to see his most important patron to seek more aid and, in all likelihood, his Chinese patrons would have thrown a bone or two to him to bribe him back to the increasingly meaningless Six-Party Talks. But if the stakeholders in East Asia’s peace and stability focus their attention on whether China’s prodding will lead to a more fruitful outcome in dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme this time, they’re simply wasting their time.
Pyongyang’s record on this issue speaks for itself: North Korea has no intention of honouring its commitments to the Six-Party Talks or abandoning its nuclear capabilities.
Judging by recent developments inside North Korea, however, clinging on to its nukes may not actually help prolong Kim Jong-il’s regime. The country’s unfolding economic catastrophe has clearly taken a toll on the regime’s legitimacy and durability—only the most desperate governments in history have resorted to outright confiscation of its people’s money. Seasoned analysts have also reported rising popular resentment against Pyongyang. Thanks to the sanctions imposed by the United Nations and other efforts to weaken Kim Jong-il’s regime, North Korea has failed to blackmail the international community into supplying more economic assistance.
More importantly, the Kim Jong-il regime, which has become a classic family dictatorship, is about to face its most difficult test of survival: succession. Stricken by a stroke not too long ago, Kim Jong-il is in frail health and his hold on power is certain to weaken. He appears desperate to install his 27-year old son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. Unfortunately for the Kim dynasty, this process is likely to end in failure. A review of transfers of power in modern family dictatorships (excluding traditional monarchies) shows that the chances of a successful succession from the first-generation dictator to his son are roughly one in four, and no grandson of a first-generation dictator has ever succeeded in taking over a regime and consolidating his power.
Of course, the Kim dynasty may set a precedent. But given the worsening economy, the inexperience of the putative successor and the unknown reliability of the Korean military and security forces in the event of Kim Jong-il’s death, the rest of East Asia should be prepared for a scenario of rapid collapse in North Korea.
What is most worrying about a possible North Korean collapse is that the key players in the region are not talking to each other, even informally, about such an eventuality. It’s almost certain that these powers—China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and, possibly, Russia—have all drawn up their own contingency plans for Pyongyang’s quick collapse. However, they’ve done nothing to explore a collective response to what is without doubt a geopolitical game-changer.
As a result, many crucial questions remain unanswered. For instance, how should the United States and South Korea react if China sends combat troops into North Korea to conduct ‘humanitarian assistance’ missions? In all likelihood, Beijing will be tempted to do so if millions of refugees start fleeing into China. Which country will take the lead in securing nuclear materials? How will China respond to the crossing of the 38th parallel by South Korean and US forces? Who will take the lead in reaching out to Pyongyang’s post-Kim regime? What will be the collective security architecture after the Korean peninsula is reunified?
These critical issues are deemed too sensitive for US, Chinese, Japanese and South Korean government officials to discuss. As a result, few are thinking about these difficult issues, let alone exploring workable solutions that could help avoid a possible conflict between China and the United States over a collapsing North Korea and construct an enduring peace after the departure of the Kim dynasty.
Given the lack of strategic trust among the key players in this volatile region, it’s probably a bad idea to count on government officials to have a sudden change of heart. Instead, a track-two approach, which consists of well-structured informal discussions and scenario planning among former government officials, academics and policy specialists, may be a first step forward. If nothing else, such privately sponsored efforts should put the most important and potentially most de-stabilizing issues on the table.
For Kim Jong-il’s Chinese hosts, even such a modest proposal may be anathema. But they would be in denial. All they need to do is to take a look at the photo of the sickly Kim and ask themselves a simple question: should we have a Plan B?
Minxin Pei is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and adjunct senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment.