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Leadership Transition in the DPRK: Implications for Northeast Asian Security

Tags: North Korea , China , China-Japan-US Relations , Korean Peninsula , East Asia

Xie Tao

August 20, 2012

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For the year 2011, the biggest news came last.

On December 17, Kim Jong-il, the supreme leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea since 1994, passed away. The sudden death of Kim Jong-il—the symbol of the enigmatic DPRK—and the transition of power to his youngest son Kim Jong-un—about whom little is known—have raised many important questions. Will this young man be able to quickly consolidate his power and complete the transition? What kind of changes or continuities in domestic and foreign policies should be expected under the new leadership? What impact will the leadership transition have on inter-Korean relations and regional security? What is the likelihood of an improved relationship with the US under the new leadership?

As a country that has few contacts with the outside world, the DPRK has been more of a mystery than reality to most observers, a frequent subject of speculation and conspiracy theories. There are many questions about this country, but the answers are few. In what follows, I will offer a mixture of analyses, speculation, and policy suggestions in an attempt to tackle the questions raised above.

Uncertainties in Leadership Succession

In any nondemocratic regime, leadership succession is inherently an unpredictable process that could feature factional rivalries, military coups, or inner court conspiracies. Even in a totalitarian regime, where politics is supposed to be mechanically engineered in a strictly top-down fashion, succession has often gone terribly awry, as illuminated by the tragic stories surrounding the four designated successors to Chairman Mao.

The DPRK is no exception to this general pattern. The biggest question is, of course, whether Kim Jong-un will be able to quickly consolidate his power. Unlike his father, who had 14 years of apprenticeship under Kim Il-sung, the young man was designated successor just one year before his father’s death. This belated anointment has given him little time to cultivate his own power base vis-à-vis any potential challengers and to accumulate experience in domestic and foreign affairs.

Besides, at the age of 28, he is widely viewed as too young to run a country of 24 million people on his own. Consequently, when Jang Seong-taek, the husband of Kim Jong-il’s younger sister, was promoted in June 2010 to vice chairman on the National Defense Committee—the supreme organ of power in the DPRK—many analysts interpreted this as a sign that he was entrusted to serve as regent to ensure the young leader’s takeover of power. Yet in the history of East Asian dynastic change, many regents have been tempted to turn those in their custody into puppets instead of future emperors. Will Jang be one of these regents?

So far, all signs—at least those issued by the DPRK’s official media—indicate that the young man is portrayed as the undisputed leader. Each time he paid respects to his father at the mausoleum, he was surrounded by top military and civilian leaders. He also led the procession at the official funeral on December 29. He has quickly assumed the position of commander-in-chief of the armed forces and is vice chairman on the Central Military Commission of the Korean Workers’ Party.

Nevertheless, there are also troubling signs that throw Kim Jong-un’s grip on power into question. First, though he appears to be the leader of the military, he conspicuously does not hold any position on the National Defense Commission, which is the highest decision-making body for military, party, and civilian affairs and where his uncle is vice chairman. This could mean that he will be groomed by his uncle for a time before assuming a position on the commission. It might also indicate the dark side of a regent, who wants to pull the strings behind the curtain.

Secondly, Kim Jong-un’s family members—his two brothers in particular—have been conspicuously absent from any official events, including the funeral. This has led to speculation that there was an inner power struggle in which the two brothers were successfully neutralized. If this indeed was the case, then factions loyal to the two brothers—unless they have been thoroughly cleansed—could launch an attempt to win over power in the future.

Last but not least, the young leader has not assumed any position on the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party, though the latter has repeatedly called him “the supreme leader of the party, state, and military” and has urged the North Korean people to unite around his leadership. Before his death, Kim Jong-il was the secretary general of the party, and his tenure was to expire in December 2011. By tradition, the secretary general of the party is also the chairman of the National Defense Commission and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, as was the case with Kim Jong-il. Thus the litmus test of Kim Jong-un’s grip on power will be whether and when he will become the next leader of the Korean Worker’s Party.

A Lost Opportunity in Inter-Korea Relations

If there was any “lost opportunity” in improving North-South relations after the death of Kim Jong-il, Seoul’s (mis)handling of mourning-related issues—though quite understandable in light of what happened in 2010 and the conservative nature of the Lee Myung-bak government—would probably be counted as one.

Back in May 2009, when the former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun died, Kim Jong-il sent a message of condolences to his widow. In August of the same year, former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jong died, and Kim Jong-il sent not only an official message of condolences but also an official mourning delegation. Yet this time, the Lee Myung-bak administration decided to flout the “courtesy demands reciprocity” rule, a fundamental code of conduct in East Asian cultures, by sending neither an official message of condolences nor an official mourning delegation. To add insult to injury, strict rules on mourning activities—especially individuals or groups applying to visit Pyongyang to express condolences—were imposed in South Korea, which inflamed not only many South Korean people but also the new leader of the North. The latter reportedly announced that he would henceforth have no contact with the Lee Myung-bak government.

If Kim Jong-un really meant what he said, North-South relations have been effectively put on a freeze until and unless a new president is elected in 2012, or the current administration immediately takes initiatives to repay the damage done. Most recent developments suggest that the South is adopting more flexibilities in its policies, as demonstrated by Lee Myung-bak ’s mention of “window of opportunities” in his new year’s address. Nevertheless, the South Korean leadership has missed what could have potentially developed into “condolence diplomacy.”

Policy Orientations of the New Leadership

Based on reports from the DPRK’s official media, Kim Jong-un appears to have no intention at this moment of proposing major changes to his father’s legacies. Instead, he has affirmed his commitment to the “military first” strategy of his father. What this could mean is that DPRK under the new leadership will in all likelihood continue to pursue its nuclear ambitions, unless there are irresistible incentives for it to do otherwise. However, US insistence on denuclearization before agreeing to negotiations over a permanent peace treaty with the DPRK and Qadafi’s disgraceful downfall—after he relinquished his nuclear program—may have only reinforced the regime’s insecurity and provided it with added incentives to pursue nuclear weapons.

More generally, there are strong incentives for the newly anointed young leader to pursue a belligerent foreign policy, which presumably will improve his stature with the general public and the military. Indeed, rumors have it that he was the mastermind behind the two crises on the Korean peninsula in 2010. If these rumors turn out to be true, and if the international community continues to be divided over how to respond to similar behavior by the DPRK, then inter-Korean relations and regional security will most likely deteriorate soon after the new leader has consolidated his rule.

Nonetheless, giving top priorities to military and foreign policies does not necessarily mean that economic development—which is desperately needed for an impoverished populace—will be put on the back-burner. In fact, during his meeting with an unofficial mourning delegation from South Korea, Kim Jong-un mentioned the two joint declarations concerning the Sunshine Policy and expressed his hopes that Seoul would honor its promises and obligations under the two declarations. This could be an important signal that the new leader intends to resume North-South negotiations on food aid and joint economic development. After all, in order for the DPRK to become a “strong and prosperous country by 2012”—an ambitious goal set by Kim Jong-il—it needs not only a powerful military but also a vibrant economy. More importantly, one of the foolproof ways to boost a new leader’s legitimacy and popularity is to give his people a better life—be it in a democratic or nondemocratic country.

China’s Conundrums

The death of the old Kim and the ensuing power transition once again put China into spotlight, as the latter has been the closest ally of the DPRK for more than half a century and is believed to have more influence on Pyongyang than any other country. Whether China supports the new leader—and the extent of its support—will have a far-reaching impact on the post-Kim Jong-il regime and the dynamics of regional security.

Despite its increasingly troubled relationship with the DPRK since the 1990s—as a result of China’s normalization with South Korea and the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions, among other things—China nevertheless firmly commits itself to the new leader and the survival of the regime. This should not come as a big surprise. It fought a bloody war on behalf of the DPRK, and this “critical choice” in history has resulted in path dependence in both domestic and foreign policy. That is, because of the Korean War—which has become part of the Chinese national memory—it would be unthinkable for China to abandon the DPRK. It is easier to befriend your enemy than to betray your friend. This is why China has been providing large sums of economic aid to DPRK and has almost always sided with the DPRK in the latter’s confrontations with the US. Besides, the US military presence in South Korea—a legacy of the Korean War and the Cold War—leaves no choice for China but to support the regime.

Nevertheless, China may have second thoughts about its relationship with the DPRK. First, since the DRPK is widely viewed as a pariah state and was labeled part of “an axis of evil,” China’s close association with such a country has undoubtedly done considerable damage to its international image. Second, as its leverage against the DPRK appears to be decreasing—as revealed in the latter’s two nuclear tests and covert uranium-enrichment facilities—it is in China’s best interest to keep the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions in check through a multilateral mechanism. Consequently, China has been touting the Six Party Talks as one of its important contributions to regional security, despite its initial unwillingness to be a mediator in US-DPRK confrontations.

Prospects of Regional Security

With an unpredictable new leader at the helm of a country that has been a major source of regional tension, Northeast Asia is facing great uncertainties in regional security. To borrow from a Chinese commercial, “anything is possible.” That being said, worst-case scenarios could be prevented if countries with important stakes in regional peace and stability take immediate steps to address the concerns of each other and those of the DPRK.

First and foremost, the US and China must find ways to build up trust and to accommodate each other’s interests in this region. In the final analysis, though the DPRK has been a major source of regional tension, the real culprit is the intense security dilemma between China and the US. Unless there is significant improvement in Sino-US relations, prospects for regional security are gloomy.

China should realize that having one more nuclear power along its border is not in its best interest, despite the fact that the DPRK could be a strategic buffer vis-à-vis the US military presence in South Korea and Japan. But the value of the DPRK as a strategic buffer has decreased significantly as a result of decreasing Chinese leverage over the regime and China–South Korea normalization. Thus China should actively cooperate with the US and other regional countries to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, China should begin discussion with the US, South Korea, and Japan on how to prevent a humanitarian crisis in case of a regime collapse. The combined economic and diplomatic resources of these four countries could effectively handle any humanitarian crisis in the region.

For the US, it must take steps to alleviate China’s security concerns. Though US policymakers have repeatedly tried to reassure their Chinese counterparts that US military presence in East Asia is not targeted at China, the prevailing perceptions in Beijing are exactly the opposite. After all, the hub-and-spokes system remains intact and has been strengthened in the aftermath of tumultuous events in Northeast Asia in 2010. With regard to Taiwan—the central issue in bilateral relations—the US security commitment remains unchanged. The Obama administration’s high-profile reengagement with Asia, most notably the US-Australian basing agreement and Hilary Clinton’s surprise visit to Burma, further reinforced the sense of insecurity among the Chinese leadership, who views these steps as a new round of US “encirclement” of China. To the extent that Americans dismiss Chinese security concerns as “groundless” or “oversensitive,” they do so at the price of losing Chinese cooperation on denuclearization and many other issues.

One thing the US should do is to reduce arms sales to Taiwan. Given the lopsided military balance across the strait, such sales are obviously more symbolic than substantive, and a reduction in sales can be used as a gesture of goodwill to induce Chinese cooperation on other issues. The US should also reconsider its stance on the South China Sea, which has the potential to become the next flash point in Asia. Instead of insisting on a multilateral approach to territorial disputes in this area, the US should actively encourage the countries involved to have bilateral negotiations. The visit to Beijing by Vietnam’s top leader and Chinese Vice President’s most recent visits to Thailand and Vietnam suggest that China’s bilateral approach has been more successful than expected.

With regard to the DPRK, the US should realize that the road to Pyongyang goes through Beijing, unless the DPRK suddenly decides to throw itself into the arms of the US. A rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang is not impossible, as the benefits of being reintegrated into the international community under US auspices certainly outweigh those provided by association with China. Nonetheless, the DPRK is unlikely to agree to denuclearization as a precondition for such a rapprochement. In the end, the US must seek Chinese cooperation to denuclearize the DPRK.

In addition, the US should avoid any action that may provoke the new leader of the DPRK, particularly large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea. Such exercises may be viewed by the new leader as military provocations or blatant intimidation. In the contest of succession politics, the new leader may feel compelled to respond militarily in order to shore up domestic political support.

At a different but equally important level, China, Japan, and South Korea should seek reconciliation with each other in order to build up a truly regional multilateral security mechanism that can effectively deal with any contingency in DPRK or in the region. Perhaps the most important consequence of deep-rooted resentment and suspicion among the three countries is the US-led bilateral security structure in Northeast East Asia. As long as US troops are stationed in Japan and South Korea, China will feel threatened, and regional multilateral security cooperation will be compromised.

The death of Kim Jong-il and the transition to a new leader could be a “critical juncture” that ushers in new dynamics of regional security. Much depends on the policies of the new leader, as well as the policies of regional countries toward the new leader. Though it is too early to make any definite judgment, one thing is certain: it will take statesmanship, innovation, and vision to make Northeast Asia not only a region of prosperity but also a region of stability.

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