Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell reportedly said in a closed-door meeting on Feb. 3 that based on all medical information, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has three years to live. Campbell was here to gather expert opinions about the political situation in North Korea and the prospects of dynastic succession there. Three North Korean defectors, three South Korean politicians and U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens were present. Campbell did not go into detail about the evidence supporting his prediction.
The U.S. government has been focusing on Kim's health, dispatching a medical expert as part of former President Bill Clinton's entourage when he went to North Korea to win the release of two American journalists. Kim, who turns 68 this year, disappeared from view for five months after suffering a massive stroke in August 2008. He reappeared in public in early 2009 and has been conducting "on-the-spot guidance" at various facilities. Considering Kim's age and history of ailments, it would come as little surprise if he suddenly collapsed this year, but he may equally last another decade.
South Korean must be prepared either way. At the time of Kim Il-sung's death, Kim Jong-il was 52. He was hand-picked as North Korea's next leader back in 1974 and spent the next 20 years being groomed for the job by gradually gaining control of the Workers' Party, the military and Cabinet and had already emerged as the de facto leader by the time his father died. But Kim Jong-il's heir apparent Jong-un is only 27 and did not undergo the training his father received.
Judging by the degree of opposition and public unrest caused by the disastrous currency reform late last year, the regime appears to have become less capable of dealing with crises. If the supreme leader dies at this point, the ensuing events could be very different from those that took place just after Kim Il-sung's death.
The U.S. sent a crack team specializing in weapons of mass destruction to the "Key Resolve" joint military exercise with South Korean troops. The unit did not participate in last year's exercise due to opposition from China, but the U.S. proposed discussions with Chinese government officials about steps to deal with unexpected events in North Korea. The primary U.S. response to such a scenario is focused on dealing with North Korea's nuclear missiles and its biochemical weapons and stabilizing the situation.
An operational plan South Korea and the U.S. have prepared in case of an emergency in North Korea focuses on responding to military aggression by the North in order to contain the fallout from the sudden death of Kim Jong-il, a power struggle in the North, public unrest, insurrection, mass defections and other internal crises.
But the top priority for South Korea is how to turn such a crisis into a chance to achieve reunification. North Korea has become increasingly reliant on China over the last two years. Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie visited North Korea in November last year and said, "I will protect the relationship between China and North Korea, which was forged in blood." A mutual support pact between the two countries authorizes the military intervention by one if the other is invaded. If the North Korean regime faces a crisis and seeks Beijing's assistance, Chinese troops may get involved in an all-out war. If South Korea remains unprepared for such a scenario, the country may lose another chance for reunification.
South Korea must stop viewing the prospect of sudden changes in North Korea as a theoretical scenario and treat it as a looming reality. It should have an action plan ready that can be implemented immediately. The U.S., China, Japan and Russia must initiate strategic discussions about such preparations, and the government must ensure through the UN that its solution in dealing with a North Korean crisis is accepted by the international community.