The sudden death of Kim Jong-il has cast a further shadow of uncertainty over the prospects for stability on the Korean Peninsula. On the one hand, hawkish analysts from the West and South Korea argue that this may well signal the end of the Kim dynasty, with North Korea soon to be confined to the dustbin of history. On the other hand, some see the dictatorship in Pyongyang as likely to survive, if not under Kim’s son and designated heir Kim Jong-un (with his uncle and aunt Chang Sung Taek and Kim Kyong Hui acting as co-regents) then under some military-backed strongman who emerges victorious from a power struggle.
With history as a guide, I’d argue the latter view is likely to prove much closer to reality. Neither the death of founder Kim Il-sung – Kim Jong-il’s father and “Eternal President” of the country – in 1994, nor the demographic shock of famine, floods and droughts in the mid-1990s, nor even the halving of North Korea’s economy in a decade, could bring about the end of the Kim dynasty. And if Kim Jong-un manages to consolidate power and can demonstrate his father’s capacity for political survival, then dark days may well lie ahead for the Korean Peninsula.
Back in 2009, the launch of a long range satellite-bearing rocket, which was widely suspected to be a test of a Taepodong 2 intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as North Korea’s second nuclear weapons test that same year, were meant to serve as demonstrations of the country’s technological advancements and military strength. But they also served another purpose, namely rallying the North Korean public around the leadership following Kim Jong-il’s stroke in mid-2008.
At the same time, there was a scramble to position Kim Jong-un as his father’s successor, and both the nuclear and missile tests can therefore arguably be seen as the ultimate propaganda effort on behalf of Kim Jong-un.
Which is why there is now so much talk of another provocation by Pyongyang. With his father’s death, his lack of experience and his youth (he’s still only in his 20s) in a conservative Confucian culture that prizes seniority, Kim and his supporters may be tempted to stage another tangible show of North Korean strength to drum up support and reassert North Korea’s position on the global stage. But another shelling of a border area similar to the Yeonpyeong incident, or a naval attack like the Cheonan sinking last year,would surely be counterproductive with South Korea having signaled it is willing to strike back hard.
So, might Kim Jong-un and his advisors be tempted to conduct the country’s s third nuclear test instead? If they did follow this path, it would almost certainly prompt a firm response from the international community in the form of tougher sanctions. This would only serve to box the new regime in, with the hawkish upper echelons of the Korean People’s Army bound to resist any prospect of reconciliation with the international community or a return to the Six-Party Talks.
Of course, what Kim Jong-un or his co-regents will eventually do is anyone’s guess. But historical precedent in North Korea offers little cause for optimism and a great deal of reason for pause. It’s impossible to rule out the possibility of an eventual implosion of the state, resulting in massive refugee outflows, opportunistic violence by well-armed and leaderless KPA units and, most worryingly, loose nuclear warheads being offered for sale.
In order to pre-empt any foolish behavior or miscalculations on the part of Pyongyang, the U.S.-South Korea alliance, along with Japan, should therefore consider a strategy of cautious engagement. For a start, this could involve extending a joint message of condolence to Kim Jong-un for the passing of his father. In addition, other parties to the Six-Party Talks could approach Beijing, as Pyongyang’s only remaining ally, and ask that it signal politely but firmly that if Kim Jong-un wishes to preserve the status quo, any nuclear or missile tests would be extremely ill-advised.
In addition, the door to denuclearization talks should be kept open, as should the possibility of additional aid being sent to the country. And the United States and South Korea might also consider deferring the annual joint military exercises that Pyongyang finds so irksome in return for a confidence-building expression of “regret” over the Yeonpyeong shelling last year.
Such flexibility could provide just the diplomatic opening needed for the resumption of nuclear disarmament talks, and may just be enough to ensure that everyone with an interest in stability in the region can get what they hope for.
Nah Liang Tuang is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.