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Dark Futures: Thinking About North Korea’s Coming Leadership Transition

Satellite image of North and South Korea at night, delineated by border line Source: The Australian

The past year has witnessed a remarkable and troubling series of events that indicate Northeast Asia may be entering into a period of profound instability driven by North Korea’s precarious leadership transition. Pyongyang’s unprovoked sinking of a South Korean naval ship and its deadly artillery attack on a small coastal island, have escalated speculation on what these dramatic events portend for the future. Recent events seem to have quashed optimism of North Korean belligerence receding as Kim Jong-un’s ascension to power is consolidated. Moreover, there still remains a combination of factors that could shape a spectrum of political outcomes after Kim Jong-il’s death. Ultimately, the unification of Korea now appears more likely than ever to come at a far higher cost than generally thought – if it comes about at all – and the road there is paved with risks and unknowns.

Underpinning the instability is the reality that North Korea is not ready for the inevitable leadership transition ahead. Whereas Kim Jong-il benefited from many years of cultivation prior to his ascension to power in 1994, it appears likely that his youngest son could be faced with a transition lacking the benefits of time and training. This is why North Korea has been indulging in political grandstanding at the same time it cracks down internally, executing defectors and officials tied to unpopular policies.

For Kim Jong-un to have any hope of consolidating national power before he exercises it, he needs at the very least the tacit backing of the Chinese leadership and the North Korean military. Despite Kim Jong-Il’s best attempts, Beijing and the hardliners in charge of the North Korean military may have other ideas about who the future dictator-in-chief should be. A concerned China has engaged in an unprecedented amount of high-level diplomatic activity with Pyongyang. At the very least, would-be kingmakers in Beijing and Pyongyang can be expected to hedge their bets—often the case when one is gambling on their very survival. There are also indications that the key personalities in North Korea have deeply antagonistic relationships with each other and the political schisms are cemented by rivalries between powerful institutions raw from economic reform failure.

Listed below are five possible scenarios for what might happen when Kim Jong-Il passes away. Key metrics to watch include: the time and manner of Kim Jong-Il’s death, which individual or group discovers the body, and how long that knowledge can be exploited before the news leaks out. While different leadership scenarios could spell varied political and security outcomes for the country, the entrenched authoritarian political culture and leadership system hamstring prospects of governance reform and the likelihood of stability if Kim Jong-un’s succession is seriously challenged. The extreme militarization of North Korean society, growing power factions, and a crushing economic outlook are all likely to contribute to the generally pessimistic “dark futures” ahead.

Five Possible Futures

• Dynastic Rule: Given enough time, political cunning, and luck, Kim Jong-un could successfully succeed his father and rule under the protection of family allies, such as Kim Jong-il’s four-star general sister, Kim Kyong-hui, and her powerful husband, Jang Song-taek. North Korea would continue to remain fragile and militaristic for a time, but given enough pressure from Beijing, could eventually adopt Chinese-style economic reforms and begin a process of economic stabilization. However, greater engagement with South Korea and the U.S. would be limited unless concrete moves were made to denuclearize the peninsula, something not considered likely under this scenario.

• Family Feud: The reports of a failed assassination attempt on Kim’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, including rumors of a shootout between Kim Jong-chol and his uncle Kim Hyon-nam at one of the family palaces, highlight the antipathy that exists between members of the Kim family. While the middle son, Kim Jong-chol is considered too soft for leadership, it is possible that a conflict could erupt between him and his younger brother, with unexpected power shifts and/or an outright collapse of central leadership. This could result in a military takeover, a power vacuum, or a meltdown-type scenario.

• Military Takeover: In the event that Kim Jong-Il dies suddenly, catching the inexperienced younger Kim and family allies off-balance, opportunistic hardliner generals could stage a coup and push North Korea into an even more militarized state. The threat of war on the Korean peninsula would increase dramatically due to the highly paranoid worldview of the military establishment, and the likelihood that purges they would inevitably undertake to consolidate power would eliminate more cautious voices of reason in the party and elsewhere.

• Power Vacuum: There could be a highly perilous dissolution of centralized power resulting from a power struggle in Pyongyang between members of the Kim family, the party, and the security services, with regional military commanders and/or the Chinese military stepping in to fill the security void. It is possible that Beijing would attempt to install Kim Jong-nam as the titular leader of North Korea, but his lack of legitimacy, motivation, and experience would likely make him ineffective. The fragility of a power vacuum in North Korea would make it prone to further fractionalization.

• Meltdown: An all-out civil war could ensue, in which proliferation risks from North Korea’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, along with the missiles used to deliver them, would become an international concern of the highest order. In the event of intervention from both China and the U.S., North Korea could become a flashpoint for great power conflict. At the very least, there is the potential that a North Korean failed state could become a proxy conflict, with rival factions backed by the U.S. and South Korea on one side and China on another. A diplomatic mechanism for avoiding such an eventuality does not exist.

While it is not currently known, nor knowable, how events will unfold when Kim Jong-Il dies, it would behoove U.S. policymakers to prepare for a range of unsavory contingencies. Policymakers have made assumptions about the theoretical benefits and challenges of a unified Korea, but it is unclear whether they have addressed the full range of dangers lurking along the road to unification. Current short-term focus on pressing political issues such as nuclear disarmament and the six-party talks inadvertently distracts much needed attention from the long term strategic picture.

It is one of the cruel ironies of history that totalitarian rulers, through their inherently oppressive leadership (i.e., systematically eliminating all viable opposition and wrapping themselves in a cult of personality), set the conditions for their countries to suffer from instability and civil strife long after they are gone. Recognizing that this reality will impact the future of North Korea just as it has countless authoritarian regimes throughout history may be the first step to preparing for the instability ahead.