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Can Kim Muddle Through?

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New Leaders Forum

Can Kim Muddle Through?

The death of Kim Jong-il has left the Asia-Pacific in a state of flux. Expect things to get complicated next year.

The world was shocked to learn of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death from a heart attack over the weekend. South Korean and U.S. militaries are now on alert, and Chinese forces are no doubt keeping careful watch on the shared border with North Korea. Uncertainty is putting downward pressure on the South Korean stock market and currency. However, other than a routine short-range missile test, no unusual activity has been reported inside North Korea, along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) or around the maritime Northern Limit Line (NLL).

North Korea has announced an official period of mourning and an elaborate state funeral to be led by Kim Jung-un, the deceased Kim’s third son and chosen successor. The younger Kim is only in his late-20s and lacks the years of on-the-job training that Kim Jong-il received before taking over the national leadership from his father, North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung. It remains unclear whether new leadership will bring new policies, but the cohort of family members, loyalists, and the repressive institutions that Kim Jong-il leaves behind offers little reason for optimism about economic reform and human rights in North Korea.

The passing of Kim Jong-il will complicate relations in the Northeast Asia region as neighboring countries and the United States work to understand the situation in North Korea and take positions regarding the new leadership. The U.S. response is likely to be cautious and focused on coordinating policy with South Korea and other Asian allies and partners to maintain military deterrence and regional stability. 

In South Korea, there’s likely to be intense political debate, with recriminations already flying about who knew what, when, and why not earlier. South Korea will hold separate legislative and presidential elections in 2012, and ahead of those contests, both hawks and doves will argue Kim Jong-il’s passing demands a change in Seoul’s North Korea policy. Hawks will point to an opening for stricter demands on Pyongyang, pushing for North Korean compliance on existing nuclear agreements, for example. Doves will call for engagement and building constructive relations with the new North Korean leadership via official and unofficial exchanges in addition to food and energy aid.

However, both ends of the South Korean political spectrum will find it challenging to advance their policy agendas vis-a-vis North Korea. After the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, North Korea largely unplugged from the world to focus on its domestic transition. The world will find it difficult to show Pyongyang either carrots or sticks while the North Korean leadership is looking inward. Moreover, South Koreans are unlikely to forge political consensus for a change in policy as the administration of President Lee Myung-bak (constitutionally disallowed from running for a second term) approaches the end of its tenure and the campaign season heats up. South Korea’s default mode toward the North will thus be “wait and see.”

Meanwhile, many eyes are on China to see how it reacts to the changing North Korean regime and whether Beijing will attempt to exert more influence over Pyongyang. In the short-term, North Korea will likely remain relatively quiet as the new leadership focuses on maintaining stability and continuity. Diplomatic initiatives with Pyongyang will probably stagnate as new leaders eschew risk while consolidating power. The big questions are how well and by when they will be able to achieve such goals.

The odds of a dramatic North Korean collapse or military attack in the coming days are low; the greater danger is instability in the medium-term. Outsiders are unlikely to observe palace intrigue, large refugee outflows, a nuclear test or other military provocations by North Korea in the near future. However, when the leadership faces its first policy crisis – as a result of floods, food shortages, economic mismanagement or external frictions – this is when the transition could unravel. North Korea’s technical schedule for development of its nuclear and missile programs may also call for a test next year, which could precipitate a crisis.

If the new leadership in Pyongyang fails its first major policy test, long-submerged fissures in North Korean politics may rise to the surface. The Kim family business will attempt to handle disagreements behind closed doors, with muddling through of slightly higher probability than a meltdown scenario. But there will be a complex set of interactions going forward, with 2012 set to be a year of policy flux in relevant capitals. On a political calendar that includes leadership transition in China and elections in South Korea and the United States, Kim Jong-il’s death is only the beginning.

Leif-Eric Easley is Assistant Professor in the Division of International Studies at Ewha University and a Research Fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.