Can North Korea Have Soft Landing?

Recent Features

Features | Politics | East Asia

Can North Korea Have Soft Landing?

The death of Kim Jong-il has increased the chances of a violent collapse of North Korea. Nuclear and chemical weapons, mistrust and an uncertain succession are a toxic mix.

It’s hard to feel disappointed by Kim Jong-il’s death. His policies led to the starvation of millions of people, as well as the advent of the most dangerous nuclear rogue state. But his death still presents renewed challenges to the United States and other countries in 2012.

Kim’s regime was a menace to its people, neighbors, and much of the rest of the international community. Its hyper-militarism, economic mismanagement, and inability to implement major economic reforms due to fear of undermining the country’s political dictatorship made North Korea dependent on foreign assistance. Kim and his cronies engaged in diverse forms of state-sponsored crime including the kidnapping of foreign nationals (the Japanese abductees are best known since Tokyo raises them as a barrier to further engagement with Pyongyang); trafficking in narcotics, people, and many other forms of contraband; and the counterfeiting of foreign currency (especially well-crafted $100 bills). Kim managed to blackmail the United States, South Korea, and Japan with threats of conducting more provocations while offering (and then reneging on) pledges of good behavior in return for sufficient compensation.

The process of dynastic succession is now proceeding in Pyongyang under circumstances much less favorable than during the first dynastic transfer after the death in 1994 of Kim Il-sung, the regime’s god-like founder. Although Kim Il-sung died suddenly, he had prepared his son for years to succeed him. In contrast, Kim Jong-il’s health abruptly deteriorated before he had properly designated a successor and prepared him to fulfill that function. Although Kim Jong-Il seems to have recovered from his 2008 stroke, he had been struggling to establish favorable conditions for his third son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him.

The early death of his father means that Kim Jong-un will experience severe disadvantages due to his limited experience, fragile power base, political barriers to needed economic reforms, and the military’s elevated role in politics (Kim Jong-un’s recent promotion to general may have hurt rather than helped his standing with other military leaders). The troubled conditions surrounding the political succession could spell trouble for others since the regime’s increasingly provocative behavior might be designed to rally support behind the Kim dynasty.

Dealing with North Korea’s wayward regime is one of Asia’s most important security issues. The Korean Peninsula represents the one global hotspot where the direct interests of all the Asian-Pacific powers – China, Japan, Russia, and the United States – intersect. Achieving peace and prosperity in northeast Asia requires solving the Korean conflict, which manifests itself most dangerously in North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery, as well as Pyongyang’s periodic provocations against South Korea.

Last year was a terrible one for security on the Korean Peninsula, with three events proving particularly troubling. In March 2010, North Korea launched an unprovoked attack on South Korea, firing a torpedo from a submarine that sank the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette. Although the North Korean government denies sinking the ship and killing 46 sailors, the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group reached this conclusion based on an examination of the damaged vessel, as well as the accounts of the survivors, who recalled near simultaneous explosions of the kind that would result from a torpedo explosion. They also found the remnants of the torpedo in the wreck of the Cheonan that matched a North Korean CHT-02D type torpedo.

In early November, North Korean officials showed off a new uranium enrichment facility, consisting of some 2,000 recently constructed centrifuges, to an American nuclear scientist. Although the North Koreans claim the facility is designed to manufacture fuel for a nuclear power plant, enrichment can also be used to make weapons-grade fissile material. Until now, North Korea has used the plutonium produced by its Yongbyon nuclear facility to manufacture fissile material for its nuclear explosive devices, including those it detonated in 2006 and 2009.

Finally, on November 23, the North Koreans launched an artillery barrage against Yeonpyeong Island, a South Korean possession located in the disputed border region, which killed two South Korean soldiers and two South Korean civilians. North Korea accepted responsibility for that attack, but claimed it followed a South Korean military exercise that violated the Northern Limit Line, the maritime sea border in the West (“Yellow” in Chinese) Sea, as well as earlier provocative joint Korea-U.S. military drills. The North Korean artillery attack on a civilian target outraged the South Korean public.

Although the reasons for the North Korean provocations in 2010 are unclear, they probably were at least in part due to the succession process within the Kim dynasty, which has ruled the country since its founding. The Kim regime might have sought to reassure other members of the North Korean leadership about the fitness of the young and inexperienced Kim Jong-un to rule by demonstrating his ability to stand up to foreign pressure over the March and November provocations.

And yet, as bad as 2010 was, 2011 has been relatively calm. The North Korean leadership has issued several proposals calling for renewed inter-Korean defense talks, citing the need to relax cross-border tensions. Pyongyang has also reaffirmed interest in returning to the Six-Party Talks on

relinquishing its weapons, as well as its nuclear weapons infrastructure.

But while North Korea’s most well-known and obvious threat is its nuclear weapons program, it also possesses the world’s third largest chemical weapons stockpile, and has acquired a large number of ballistic missiles, some of which Pyongyang sells on the open market. Moreover, North Korea has around 80,000 special forces for covert infiltration and other disruptive missions. Reports suggest that North Korea also possesses the potential to produce an additional 4-12 plutonium bombs. 

South Korea and the United States, under its policy of “strategic patience,” have demanded that North Korea give some concrete indication that it will make major nuclear concessions. Unlike its two immediate predecessors, the administrations of Presidents Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), the current government under President Lee Myung-bak has joined the United States in insisting that Pyongyang end its nuclear weapons program as part of any inter-Korean peace deal.

But even if the succession process goes smoothly, and the Six-Party Talks resume, a number of obstacles could thwart progress. For instance, a peace agreement is still needed to formally end the Korean War, while North Korean leaders may decide that having nuclear weapons is now essential for its security. Meanwhile, the ability of the United States to credibly deter a North Korean attack is coming into question due to North Korea’s emerging potential to launch nuclear warheads against the United States.

Although expectations regarding the demise of the Kim regime have been both frequent and incorrect, the circumstances may now be conducive for major changes. The regime is experiencing an unprecedented conjunction of crises, of which four interlinked problems are most serious.

First, the early death of the father means that political succession will likely be a contested one. The whole process of dynastic political inheritance in a nominally Marxist-Leninist state is somewhat bizarre.

Second, North Korea’s economic problems have become extremely serious due to its progressive loss of vital sources of foreign aid, an inability to abandon economically harmful but politically stabilizing policies, widening income disparities, and perennial food and health care shortages that threaten to degrade North Koreans’ human capabilities. The result of all these economic problems is an impoverished and increasingly disenchanted population, as well as hordes of refugees fleeing to neighboring countries.

Third, North Korea’s long-standing policy of brinkmanship no longer yields major concessions; they do however increasingly risk provoking a major war. Pyongyang’s outrageous provocations against South Korea last year have so antagonized South Korean public opinion that vigorous retaliation to any further provocations has become much more likely since President Lee Myung-bak would find it difficult not to strike back. South Korean military doctrine now emphasizes the need for a prompt and vigorous response to future provocations.

These problems have created a fourth, existential, crisis in which North Koreans have increasingly lost faith in their regime even if they lack the means to depose it. The incongruence between the North Korean regime’s proclaimed successes and its genuine failures will become increasingly evident in 2012 due to its pledge to create a “strong and prosperous nation” that year, the centennial of the founding father’s birth. The recent upheavals in the Arab world are a welcome reminder that even the most long-lasting dictatorships cannot last forever.

The best outcome would be a “soft landing” in which the weight of North Korea’s problems gradually saps its strength and North Korea no longer threatens other countries. At some point, this process could lead to intra-Korean reconciliation and the gradual integration of the two Koreas. Unfortunately, fundamental change isn’t visible on the horizon, while even a more mellow North Korea would have good reasons to keep its nuclear weapons, especially if the regime’s other support props no longer work. A German-style reunification through absorption, along with the North Korean regime’s voluntary collapse, is extremely unlikely due to the regime’s ingrained militancy.

All of this means that a violent and abrupt collapse is a more plausible scenario. This could be sparked by a major internal challenge, perhaps from a dissatisfied general or from a popular uprising, or from a confrontation with South Korea that escalates out of control. For example, the North Korean leadership might take provocative action assuming that its nuclear deterrent would avert military retaliation, only to be proved wrong about its presumed “escalation dominance.” North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons could present real problems here, as does with the fourth “nightmare” scenario, namely reunification through war, in which South Korea would intervene to occupy North Korea.

This scenario also runs the significant risk of Chinese military intervention to preserve a sphere of influence. After several years of reassessing their Korean polices, Chinese leaders have most recently resolved to prevent regime change no matter how much they dislike the Kim dynasty. Chinese leaders see a unified Korea under Seoul’s leadership and allied to the United States as a threat to its fundamental interests. Since mid-2010, then, China has increased its assistance to North Korea, including by providing more diplomatic support and economic aide.

The difficult nature of the North Korean regime, combined with the general lack of trust among those countries involved, have meant the prospects for the success of the Six Party Talks have always been poor. But the magnitude of the danger – the increased risks of nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism, and nuclear war – mean that those involved have no choice but to keep on trying.