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Preparing for Uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula

Dec 26 , 2011

Kim Jong-il’s sudden death has introduced a new element of uncertainty into the security dynamics in Northeast Asia.  In recent years, quiet discussions have undoubtedly taken place in all of the region’s capitals, as well as in Washington DC, about the challenges that Kim’s passing might pose.  Nevertheless, no country is well prepared for the power transition in North Korea.  Moreover, suspicions among neighboring countries run deep and all are monitoring each other as closely as they are monitoring developments inside the hermit kingdom.

There are several possible scenarios for North Korea’s future.  A smooth succession that brings to power Kim Jong-il’s anointed successor, his youngest son Kim Jong-un, cannot be ruled out.  Reportedly not yet thirty years of age and with a weak power base, Jong-un is unlikely to be able to take over the reins of power immediately, however.  Experts speculate that a cabal of elders led by Jang Song-taek, Jong-un’s uncle and vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission, perhaps joined by Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Kyong-hui, will wield real power while preparing young Kim to eventually assume the helm. The process could yield an outcome largely the same as the North Korea that exists today—a closed, militarized state with starving people and nuclear weapons that periodically takes belligerent actions against South Korea—or produce a younger, bolder leadership that opts to implement economic reform and become more integrated into the rest of the world.
If the leadership succession fails, internal rivalry could lead to major instability that sends refugees fleeing across North Korea’s borders and creates doubts about effective control of nuclear weapons facilities.  Stabilizing the country and eliminating the threat of insecure weapons of mass destruction could require external intervention and assistance.
Early indications suggest that the succession is proceeding as planned. Kim Jong-un was named head of the funeral committee for his father and visited the Kumsusan mausoleum, where the body was lying in state.  Official propaganda is heaping effusive praise on the son in an effort to unite the population behind the “great successor.”  The opacity of the country makes it difficult to detect signs of a power struggle in its early stages, however.  Therefore, countries should prepare for various contingencies.
The transition offers an opportunity to persuade North Korea to abandon its isolation and failed policies.  The U.S., South Korea, and Japan should signal Pyongyang that a decision to completely abandon its nuclear ambitions and pursue reform will be met with positive gestures.  If there is a chance for positive change in North Korea, it should not be missed.  China, North Korea’s closest ally, can play a key role in ensuring stability while encouraging the country’s new rulers to ponder a new course.
At the same time that countries work to increase the possibility of a brighter future for North Korea and its people, planning must ensue for the possibility of regime collapse.  In a worst case scenario, turmoil could result in widespread starvation and civil war.  Timely outside assistance, including provision of food and medical supplies as well as security forces to restore order, would be critically important, but in the absence of advance coordination, would be delayed at the potential cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.
The U.S. and South Korea have been consulting and preparing their militaries for the task of locating and securing WMD sites north of the 38th parallel.  The United States has actively sought to engage China in a dialogue about cooperative responses to a North Korea collapse since Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008, to no avail.  Beijing has worried that even quiet discussions on potential North Korean instability would become known and inflict damage on its fragile relationship with Pyongyang.  China has also been suspicious of U.S. intentions on the Korean Peninsula, fearful that the U.S. backed regime change and wary that the U.S. and South Korea planned to reunify the peninsula with total disregard for Chinese interests.
Launching such a dialogue is now not only necessary, it is urgent.  The U.S., China, and South Korea should candidly discuss the various possible scenarios that could take place and how they can cooperate to promote mutually favorable outcomes.  Each country should be prepared to take steps to address the fears of the others.  China should be assured that the U.S. would not use a collapsing North as a pretext to station troops in the northern part of the country; that nuclear weapons would be removed from the peninsula; that if reunification takes place, a reunified Korea would be friendly to China and its economic interests would be protected; and that the enduring US-Korea alliance would not be used to harm Chinese interests.  South Korea should be assured that China would not send troops to prop up a failing regime and that in the event of regime collapse, Beijing would not seek to prevent reunification.
Against the background of Chinese suspicions about the Obama administration’s intentions in its “pivot” to Asia, including strengthening US regional alliances, reshaping US force posture in the region, encouraging regional states to express concern about Chinese activities in the South China Sea, and promoting an ambitious plan for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that sets the bar for entry so high that Beijing cannot hope to join anytime soon, coordinating with the U.S. to discuss future contingencies on the Korean Peninsula will undoubtedly be difficult.  China’s leaders should be emboldened to proceed, however, with the knowledge that successful management of all possible scenarios that may arise in North Korea will ensure an enduring peace and stability in Northeast Asia that will benefit everyone and will bolster US-China relations at a critical moment.
Bonnie Glaser is a Senior Fellow Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS
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