The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, one of the world’s most repressive leaders, has produced a new moment of danger that binds the interests of both allies and adversaries of the nuclear-armed country.
The threat is that Kim’s untested son, so-called Great Successor Kim Jong Un, might attempt to prove his mettle with a provocative act. After two military attacks by the North in 2010 in which 50 South Koreans were killed, another provocation might risk a disproportionate military response from South Korea, U.S. intelligence officials and analysts of the region said.
The test for the North’s antagonists in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington may come in 2012, as the regime will want to convey a sense of order during the mourning and transition period, observers said. Its top ally, China, also has the incentive to avert reckless steps by its neighbor, said U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because intelligence on North Korea is classified.
“This is an extremely uncertain period,” said Charles Pritchard, who led U.S.-North Korea talks in 1997 and now is president of the Korea Economic Institute, a public policy research group in Washington. “The new leader doesn’t have a power base of his own to ensure his survival; the military will be wary of perceived threats; and instability could occur rapidly.”
A lot depends on whether the military, Workers’ Party of Korea and Kim family coalesce around Kim Jong Un or see this period as an opportunity to alter the balance of power internally, one U.S. official said.
The possibility of conflict rattled stocks yesterday, with the KOSPI Index of South Korean shares falling 3.4 percent. Equities recouped some of the loss today, advancing 0.9 percent by the close in Seoul.
Kim Jong Un’s father had decades of preparation before his father’s passing, and years after that, to build his authority. American officials said they consider Kim similar to his father in personality and mannerisms.
One question is whether Kim -- who U.S. officials say will turn 28 in January -- has enough experience effectively to manage the military and senior government figures who have supported his family’s rule since 1948. It’s possible that his short preparation has been sufficient given that upper echelons of the nation’s society are invested in the family, or perhaps too fearful to do anything but support him, U.S. officials said.
A North Korean attack might be less likely now because Pyongyang won’t want to disrupt four to five months of planned national unity events following the Dec. 28 funeral, said a congressional staff member on condition of anonymity because of lack of authorization to speak publicly.
One sign of relative calm for now: a short-range ballistic missile test yesterday, which “was the least provocative thing the North could do,” said Patrick Cronin, the senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, in a telephone interview.
The test, which U.S. officials said probably was planned before the elder Kim’s death, violated no agreements and posed no new threats, while it still allowed leaders in Pyongyang to demonstrate their military commitment, said Cronin, who recently returned from Japan and South Korea.
China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner, also has an interest in maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula, in part to prevent a flood of refugees from the impoverished nation.
While pursuing its policy of “juche,” or self-reliance, North Korea has grown more dependent on China to buy its coal and minerals as international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program closed other markets. China accounted for 83 percent of North Korea’s $4.2 billion in international commerce last year, compared with 53 percent in 2005, according to the Seoul-based Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.
Chinese and U.S. officials have worked in recent years to seek ways to avert a Korean crisis, the congressional aide said. China and South Korea have held similar talks, the aide said, and Chinese officials visited the North Korean and South Korean capitals to cool tensions after a 2010 North Korean attack sank the South Korean warship Cheonan and killed 46 seamen.
No New Openings
The uncertain transition in Pyongyang -- coupled with national elections in South Korea and a generational change in the Chinese leadership scheduled for next year -- is unlikely to offer any immediate opportunities to revive six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program or negotiations on other issues, U.S. officials and experts said yesterday. Discussions with the North, South, Russia, China, Japan and the U.S. broke off in April 2009, when the North disengaged.
“You have to assume the new leadership is going to be cautious about entering into new commitments, and you may have skepticism about their ability to actually implement the new commitments that they make,” Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington and the author of the book “Avoiding the Apocalypse: The Future of the Two Koreas,” said in an interview.
It’s important for the Obama administration to reiterate its willingness to enter into discussions with the North as it restates opposition to the North’s nuclear weapons, said Robert Gallucci, a former chief North Korea negotiator in the Clinton administration and who is now president of the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago.
For now, the official American response has been an expression of sympathy for the North Korean people. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement late yesterday that “we are deeply concerned with the well being of the North Korean people and our thoughts and prayers are with them during these difficult times.”
The succession may prompt the Obama administration to move forward with an announcement of new food aid to North Korea after negotiations last week in Beijing, said Scott Snyder, a Korea fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington a policy research group.
Anyone hoping that Kim Jong Il’s death and his untested successor may mean the end of one of the world’s most repressive and reclusive regimes may be disappointed, however, said a U.S. intelligence official with long experience in Asia.
The North’s brand of communism has failed its people in almost every conceivable way, starting with providing food and other necessities, the official said. Still, the official added, its unique mix of self-reliance, xenophobia, Confucian deference to family elders, brutal repression and Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong utopianism may prove resistant to the unrest that’s sweeping other authoritarian states from Tunisia to Syria to Russia, at least for a while longer.