Features | Security | East Asia

Explaining Kim Jong-il’s Tantrums

Frozen out of talks and wanting attention, the Kim regime made a calculated decision to up the ante in 2010, Weston Konishi tells The Diplomat.

Last year saw North Korea involved in a number of highly-charged events with South Korea. Why do you think things deteriorated so quickly?

Several factors I think came together in a kind of perfect storm over the Korean Peninsula last year. First, the moribund Six-Party Talks, as well as the suspension of substantive bilateral talks between the North and particularly South Korea and the United States, made it impossible for Pyongyang to extort concessions from the international community through diplomatic negotiations. North Korea’s only recourse, from its standpoint, was to act out and force the international community to respond to its provocations. This is a time-honored pattern of behaviour by North Korea and was, to some degree, not surprising—although the lethality of its belligerence was.

Second, since North Korea’s nuclear test in 2009 failed to yield the results that it wanted—namely economic aid and other diplomatic concessions—the regime had to up the ante to attract the attention of the international community. The sinking of the Cheonan in March and the shelling of Yeonpyong Island in November were some of the most overt uses of deadly force by North Korea since the end of the Korean War. With its disclosure of uranium enrichment facilities and a light-water reactor, North Korea certainly grabbed the attention of the international community, but probably not in ways that Pyongyang either wanted or anticipated. Instead of a new round of concessions in exchange for lowering tensions, the US and South Korea responded with a series of joint military exercises as a show of force against the North. I also think that video footage of coastal villages on Yeonpyong Island being shelled by the North didn’t really win over sympathy for the regime internationally.

Third, all of this happened against the backdrop of the succession process, in which Kim Jong-il is expected to transfer leadership of the country to his young son, Kim Jung-un. It seems entirely plausible that the regime has, in part, engaged in military provocations to signal continuity in North Korean policies despite the eventual handover of power.

An ongoing issue has been, as you’ve just mentioned, the expected power succession from Kim Jong-il to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. So, you believe incidents like the sinking of the Cheonan, for example, could have been tied to the succession?

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

I do think that there’s probably some linkage between North Korea’s recent provocations and the succession process from Kim Jong-il to, presumably, Kim Jong-un. The regime is in a very tenuous position right now. Every power transition is a delicate process, but especially so in an autocratic regime like North Korea where so much depends on maintaining a cult of personality built around the Kim family dynasty.

One of the main challenges for the regime is transforming Kim Jong-un from one of the ‘Dear Leader’s’ obscure offspring into a legitimate potential figurehead. At last September’s Workers’ Party conference, Kim Jong-un was miraculously appointed a four-star general despite his lack of any real military experience. This gave him the requisite military credentials to lead the country, and I think the North’s recent acts of aggression were in some ways meant to bolster his legitimacy as the heir to its military-first ideology.  

Do you expect a Kim Jong-un regime, if such a transfer of power takes place, to be any different from his father?

Well, if things go the way the regime seems to want to, the answer is no. Much of what the North has done so far signals a business-as-usual approach and an emphasis on continuity rather than any kind of significant reform that might change the general nature or behavior of the regime.

That said, there are several scenarios that could dramatically change the way things play out. First, the succession process could fail. There could be a power struggle or a coup that displaces Kim Jong-un before he’s even able to take over power from his father.

Second, assuming the succession process does go smoothly, the new leader will face a daunting set of challenges, from increased international pressure to continuing domestic economic problems. It’s hard to imagine how a 20-something with little or no leadership experience will be able to manage all those issues adeptly. The regime seems to be putting in place people who can help guide Kim Jong-un, but whether this team of regents can credibly lead the country, by North Korean standards, is an open question.

Third, and I think this is fairly unlikely, the new leader could prove to be some kind of transformative figure—that is, someone who sees the writing on the wall and who eventually leads North Korea to rejoin the world community as a peaceful nation that abides by international rules. If that were to happen, it would also bring North Korea a step closer toward reunification with the South. I’m not optimistic that things will play out this way, but I also think the regime can’t survive as it is forever. The regime has to change one way or the other over time, and it seems to me that a new leader provides new opportunities for a potential course corrective.

Some observers have intimated that greater priority should be given to a China-US-South Korea dialogue in order to secure more achievable and sustainable solutions. Do you agree?

Absolutely. All three countries have the greatest direct stake in the future of North Korea, and until recently were more or less on the same page about the urgency of dealing with the North Korean nuclear program. Over the past few years, though, China has shifted its priorities from denuclearization to stabilization of the regime through large-scale economic aid. Meanwhile, the North’s nuclear development remains the number one concern for South Korea and the United States, which are trying to pressure the regime. There’s a real need for all three countries to get back on the same track. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many channels for trilateral coordination on North Korea.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

My institute, IFPA, recently held one of the few trilateral dialogues among experts and officials from all three countries. The results of our discussions were quite interesting. There was clearly a lot of frustration directed at the Chinese side for accommodating North Korea’s actions but, at the end of the day, one of the Chinese participants acceded that ‘we’re all in the same boat’ about coping with North Korea. That may be true, but as South Korean and American participants pointed out, we seem to be rowing in different directions. The trick moving forward is getting all three sides to row in sync and to coordinate our priorities and approaches to North Korea. If we’re able to get to that point, the international community will stand a far better chance of dealing with the regime and its impact on regional stability.

Do you see any prospects for the Six-Party Talks getting back on track?

There have been some recent rumblings about a possible resumption of the Six-Party Talks, but I’m not sure whether they’ll pan out in the end. A major question is what the nature of the talks might be. Washington has come to the point where it essentially sees the Six-Party Talks as a mechanism for negotiating the denuclearization of North Korea. Pyongyang, on the other hand, has made it clear that it isn’t interested in giving up its nuclear deterrent and that it wants to be considered a full-fledged nuclear state.

In the absence of talks, the Obama Administration has been exercising what it calls ‘strategic patience’ but it’s taken some criticism for providing the North with time to further develop its nuclear programme. That may be one reason why the US administration might be interested in restarting the Six-Party Talks. If the talks do resume, it’ll be interesting to see whether they focus on denuclearization issues or broader issues about reducing tensions on the Peninsula, which is something the Chinese side has called for. I’m not so sure the Obama administration has made that shift yet, or that it’s convinced that North Korea is willing to make concessions on anything substantive, so I’m somewhat skeptical about the resumption of the Six-Party Talks anytime soon.

Leaving North Korea aside, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara recently suggested that Japan should develop nuclear weapons for self-defensive purposes. Can you image this happening at some point? What would the regional security implications be?

Gov. Ishihara is a master of provocative remarks, and this one’s certainly true to character. Basically, the only scenario in which I could see Japan going nuclear is if the US-Japan alliance falls apart and America’s extended nuclear deterrent no longer applies to Japan. If that were to happen then it would be completely rational for Japan to have its own nuclear weapons, especially given the neighborhood it’s in.

But think about what would happen if Japan went nuclear right now. It would fundamentally call into question the credibility of the US-Japan alliance and the US extended deterrent. It would rev up the nuclear arms race in Asia. And it would raise concerns, among friends and foes alike, about a ‘remilitarized’ Japan. Plus, going nuclear would require a total sea change of public opinion in Japan, which remains deeply allergic to nuclear weapons. I don’t think Gov. Ishihara has taken any of those factors into consideration at all. Thankfully, his job is to run Tokyo, not Japan’s security policy.

Weston Konishi is the Associate Director of Asia-Pacific Studies at The Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.

(Interview conducted by Charles Lister)