Monday, December 19, 2011

Ding Dong!

The Kim is dead! Kim Jong Il, that is.

(Oops! Is it "uncivil" to celebrate the death of a murderous communist tyrant?)

While Kim's death is unquestionably a good thing, the immediate aftermath (which is right now) is a very dangerous period. Kim's successor, Kim Jong Un, just conducted a missile test to show what all new murderous tyrants need to show --  that you should not mess with him, whether you are a foreign power or a member of his own military.

The elder Kim had been preparing for this transition for a few years, trying to tie Kim Jong Un to the army and using the food shipments intended for North Korea's starving people to the army.  Evidently, crazy or not, the elder Kim knew the philosophy of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus: "Enrich the army.  Ignore everyone else."

So, what's going to happen? No one knows.  A roundup:

Stephen Green:
I’ve written quite a bit about North Korea over the years, but let’s start off this morning with Michael Mazza and seven scenarios for the DPRK’s immediate future:
1. Kim Jong-un, Jong-il’s youngest son, steps quickly and easily into his father’s shoes. All goes swimmingly.
2. Kim Jong-il adviser Jang Song-taek acts as regent to the younger Kim and rules effectively while Jong-un continues to hone his chops in Pyongyang.
3. North Korea launches artillery attacks against the South.
4. North Korea tests a nuclear device.
5. Factional in-fighting will prevent any individual or group from exercising effective control.
6. Kim Jong-il’s death was not natural as reported. Kim Jong-un and other members of the Kim family may be next on the hit-list.
7. The additional uncertainty caused by Kim’s death drives segments of an already hungry, malnourished population over the edge. North Koreans head for the Chinese border in droves.
Left out: Another strongman could emerge to replace the Kim dynasty and hold the country together. Probably from the Army, certainly with Stalinesque purges.
Green later adds his own:
Number 8: Chinese paratroopers in Pyongyang. And pretty much everywhere else, too.
That might seem a little extreme. Given the local geopolitical and humanitarian realities, it also might be the most desirable. At least until a “4+2” type of conference can settle on the terms of Korean reunification.
But honestly, trying to predict anything about North Korea is a fool’s game. Kim Jong-un might just hold the place together. Or the generals and party bosses might decide to get out while the getting is good. If there’s anything left in the Treasury (including counterfeit U.S. hundred-dollar bills), then maybe we’ll see all-new buyers of Riviera condos in the not-too-distant future. But that kind of looting has to be done judiciously, or you risk general societal collapse before you make it to the exits. The current Egyptian junta is showing just the way to do it. Careful notes are being taken in Pyongyang, I’m sure.
But my gut tells me that North Korea will collapse, because it has been collapsing, slowly, under Kim Jong-il. I just don’t see how a 28-year-old with apparently little experience is going to accomplish anything better than his old man.


[G]iven the other realities on the ground, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army might be the best hope for the people of North Korea.
Claudia Rosett:
Big question now, what happens next with the totalitarian regime that Kim inherited from his father, and was apparently trying to pass on to one of his sons? And will U.S. diplomats now rush in, as they did during North Korea’s last succession, in 1994, with aid and deals that help shore up the regime during the vulnerable stage of transition? Or will they do the right thing, and look for ways to finally bring down the horrific system which since the late 1940s has enslaved North Koreans and threatened the Free World?
Anyone taking bets on when Jimmy Carter rushes in to help prop up the new Kim?

George Smiley:
Suffice it to say, the next North Korean leader faces grave challenges. The nation' economy is in the toilet, with no prospects for recovery. Pyongyang's most viable exports are ballistic missiles and WMD technology, along with illegal drugs and counterfeit currency. Millions of North Korean peasants face starvation, due to years of agricultural failures. It's a situation similar to the mid-1990s, when Kim Jong-il allowed at least one million peasants to perish, so scarce food supplies could be directed to the military and political elites. Given the same scenario, Kim Jong-am will likely follow his father's example.

But there's no assurance the populace will tolerate those tactics again. In recent years, there have been faint signs of political opposition and discontent within the DPRK. And, with more North Koreans gaining glimpses of the outside world, tolerance for the gulag state may continue to erode. If Kimg Jong-am can't consolidate power quickly--with the support of the military--North Korea's death spiral may accelerate, increasing the odds of a military and humanitarian crisis on the Korean peninsula.

That's one reason South Korea's military went on heightened alert when news of Kim's passing was announced. Seoul realizes that North Korea has adopted a much more provocative foreign policy in recent years, as evidenced by Pyongyang's first nuclear test in 2006, and more recently, the sinking of a ROK destroyer and the shelling of a South Korean island (along the maritime DMZ) in 2010. It is believed that [Kim Jong Un] played a role in both of those latter decisions and he would use similar tactics to gain attention (and aid) from his adversaries.

The passing of Kim Jong-il does not mean a corresponding increase in the prospects for war. If anything, the new leader will need time to secure his grip on power before embarking on specific foreign policy objectives. But having learned from the master of brinksmanship, there is no sign that Pyongyang's new leader will abandon that strategy, particularly since it has proven so effective in the past.

As for the U.S. reaction, look for Foggy Bottom to release some sort of bland statement suggesting an opportunity for improved relations with North Korea, somewhere down the road. The Obama Administration has largely ignored DPRK provocations in recent years, hoping that Pyongyang would eventually come around on the nuclear problem and other contentious issues. Don't look for that to change, either. In the mean time, the Korean Peninsula will become a much more dangerous place.
Richard Fernandez:
But whether the young man can find his footing in what must be a snakepit remains to be seen. Complicating the calculations is the fact that there is only one thing worth owning in the Hermit Kingdom: its nuclear weapons program. Upon Pyongyang’s atomic bomb effort depends its only viable industry: the blackmail and protection money extracted from its neighbors and the West. The bomb is not only where the power is; it is where the money is. If Kim Jong Un does not immediately gain control of this program then the true lever of power will escape his grasp.
But there may be complications. When authoritarian regimes collapse they often release pent-up rivalries for power. For example, the end of Gaddafi was marked by rebel factions jockeying for control of his chemical weapons. The same dynamic may be playing out in North Korea as cliques fearful for their future may attempt to lay their hands on the trump cards of uranium and plutonium.
In the short run, neighboring countries would probably like nothing better than to see a definite leadership emerge in control of Pyongyang, with positive control over its nuclear weapons program. The worst outcome would be to watch North Korea riven by a power struggle with the fate of its nuclear weapons program completely in doubt.
But that is the downside of “engagement” with an authoritarian regime. It only ever puts off the inevitable question of what happens when a regime change occurs. All of those goodwill missions by Jimmy Carter to North Korea can now have an ambiguous effect if elements which hated the previous dispensation come to power. Kim Jong Il lies dead in his armored train, proof against bullets, but not against the summons of a natural death nor to the sound of history moving on.
Richard Weitz:
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.


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.
Interesting times.

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