With the passing of Kim Jong-il, many questions are being asked about North Korea, its people, and its dealings with the outside world. There is, however, one issue that trumps all others: what does this change of leadership mean for the North Korean nuclear program?
So far, there are no clear indications of a change in North Korea’s posture towards the outside world. There’s the possibility that his son, Kim Jong-un, will lean on his “nuclear card” in some show of strength to enhance his domestic position. However, there’s also the possibility he might refrain from any sort of tactical or crisis driven display to strengthen his position. Kim belongs to the young generation – he’s a man in his 20s with a long life ahead of him – and so may be inclined to leave the nuclear card unplayed in order to gain economic and political benefits for his country.
The path that he chooses will depend on two major factors. First is his personal nature, combined with his grooming by his father and the system – very little is known or can be done about this by the rest of the world. Second, his choice will be guided by the advice or signals provided to him by the outside world. This is there the international community can make a difference.
China, for instance, has an opportunity to use its special leverage with the country and the new leader to advise him on how North Korea could take steps to accommodate itself in the international mainstream by making some credible nuclear concessions. This could include readmission of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and introduction of proper safeguards, along with re-entry into the NPT.
The rest of the international community could also act in subtle and indirect ways to alter the nuclear behavior of the state. It’s unlikely that North Korea can be disarmed of its nuclear weapons capability unless it comes about as part of a larger deal involving the region, which would mean addressing the issue of extended deterrence to Japan and South Korea. In fact, in recent times, North Korean representatives have insisted on a peace treaty as the first step for any roll back of its nuclear program. Therefore, it would be far more useful and practical to stop insisting on Pyongyang’s unilateral disarmament and to negotiate instead for the country’s responsible nuclear behavior through its acceptance of verifiable non-proliferation commitments.
The death of the “Dear Leader” presents an opportunity to his country to change tack, something that he would have found unpalatable given his ideological background and the image that he had cultivated of himself. His successor could alter positions, and herein lays an opportunity for the rest of the international community to prod him to do so.