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What Next With North Korea?

And will Kim’s successors play his brinkmanship games? The Diplomat asks Asia analyst Adam Ward at the Shangri-la Dialogue.

It has become something of a cliché to say it, but the only thing that seems to be predictable about North Korea is its unpredictability. But even by these standards, the sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan seems a surprising step. What do you think Pyongyang could have been hoping to achieve?

It’s an intriguing question. It’s hard to believe that it was a strategically well thought out manoeuvre, and it might have simply been some kind of overreaction or an accident. Certainly it would be more reassuring to believe that that was the case, rather than it being a deliberate act of hostility or aggression.

For me, it raises a broader point, which is that in the North Korean system of politics there’s a very small coterie of people responsible for managing the country’s external diplomacy, and to some extent they’re very sophisticated at brinkmanship – at raising and lowering the temperature to extract various concessions from the outside world to fend off pressure. That’s something that Kim Jong-il has been very adept at doing as part of his survival strategy for the country.

But a question that has always lurked in the background is to what extent these manoeuvres are properly understood by the military high command. And if you now proceed to some sort of a succession scenario, as we will inevitably have to, the question then is will the people that succeed Kim Jong-il have the skill to play the traditional game of North Korean brinkmanship, or are they actually going to be people who feel themselves to be under the permanent existential threat from America and what they see as its puppet client state in the South?

Clearly whoever succeeds Kim Jong-il won’t have the same authority as he had or his father had. It’s much more likely you’ll have a more dispersed power structure in which the Korean People’s Army will have a greater say than they perhaps do now. So when we think about the future, we’ll have to assess how we take into account how North Korea under that kind of leadership might react to certain measures and how it might evaluate threats. And I think it generally makes for a much more dangerous and volatile situation.

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How well do we understand the military decision making process? Do we have any good information?

What we have is very poor, and we have a very poor understanding of the decision making process in North Korea as a whole. Clearly, there’s an army first policy, which suggests that the army already occupies a certain prominence — that Kim Jong-il has decided to make the army, not the party, the centre of his power base.

As I understand it, the party structure has atrophied – there aren’t as many regular congresses and meetings of the party as might otherwise have been expected. So there does seem to have been a certain concentration of power. But I think in terms of decision making processes, they’re really impenetrable to outsiders and largely based on speculation that’s difficult to verify.

What do you make of South Korea’s response to the sinking of the Cheonan?

It has been a measured response. It has obviously stirred up a certain amount of anger and emotion as you’d expect, but I think it’s clear that the South Koreans haven’t allowed themselves to be overwhelmed with an emotional response…China has been reluctant to make a firm statement on the issue of the sinking of the Cheonan, partly because it might sense that it would be counter-productive to be explicitly, blisteringly critical of North Korea as it has certain credentials it needs to preserve. And those credentials could be cashed in at some point in the future when China’s leverage over Pyongyang needs to be exploited for perhaps some wider settlement on the nuclear issue. But I think there’s also clearly a risk for China in appearing to be too relaxed about what many countries in the region see as a fairly overt act of aggression and hostility, and it’s problematic if China allows that impression to arise.

How much sway does China really have?

I think the Chinese have always felt they have a lot of influence, but they’ve never had confidence they can calibrate that influence to achieve specific policy outcomes. They’ve always been concerned that an excessive application of that influence might prompt an over-reaction by North Korea, or alternatively that the form of pressure they apply – if too large – could have the effect of crumpling the regime in a way that would create all sorts of unwelcome contingencies on the Korean Peninsula.

But if you look at the sweep of Chinese diplomacy generally, you’ll see a general reluctance to force issues. There’s a certain sense that time is the great healer, that issues will play themselves out and that the wrong thing to do is to try and be impatient and force issues in a way that produces counter-productive responses. It’s a very process driven form of diplomacy, which compares with America’s approach, which tends to be much more driven toward product, towards outcome, towards clear and definable situations in a way that the Chinese don’t feel they have to act.

Is there any path back for North Korea to the Six-way talks?

It’s very difficult to see how that could be the case unless there was some sort of signal or act of contrition about the incident, or at least regret that would form the basis of a way they could be readmitted to those talks. Clearly, no one wants to abolish that forum, because it’s the only forum in which any real progress is seen to be likely, although in the last few years it has acted as a venue for bilateral contact between the US and North Korea that would be difficult to have outside that forum.

So it has a value, it has a function. It has been very limited in the results it has produced, but there doesn’t seem to be any particular interest in completely undermining that construct. But the key question is really the terms that the other countries want to set for North Korea’s re-entry to that forum.

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Adam Ward is director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.