Kim Jong-il Succession Could Mean Crisis or Opportunity

      October 04, 2010 13:52

      Yoo Ho-yeol

      The elevation of Kim Jong-il's son Jong-un to his father's heir at an extraordinary party congress is typical of North Korea, but the speed with which he was catapulted through the party ranks shows how urgent and complicated the situation there is. As it will take considerable time for the succession structure to establish itself, the South needs to be prepared for emergencies.

      The abrupt emergence of Kim Jong-un is directly linked to Kim Jong-il's health, and chances are that a situation that the 27-year-old successor cannot cope with will soon develop. The abrupt retreat of Kim Jong-il could lead to major disruptions, giving rise to conflicts between old and new forces and policy struggles between the party and military as well as between the conservatives and reformers.

      In a crisis the North Korean regime has often provoked the South in a bid to consolidate its hold at home. If Kim Jong-un attempts to strengthen his weak role with a display of audacity, worse things than the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan could happen. And conflicts with the international community over nuclear weapons and missiles will make it difficult for Kim Jong-un to resist an act of brinkmanship.

      A third-generation dynastic succession is unacceptable even in the worst dictatorships. Few North Koreans would support this anachronism. Control, suppression, and propaganda will have to intensify, but even then the regime will find it hard to deal with 23 million people who have just started to wake up to this iniquity. If fissures develop within the ruling elite, then the Kim dynasty would come under pressure from all sides and start to crumble.

      In order to minimize any disruption or provocations, South Korea should develop its strategic cooperation with China. China sees the succession from the point of view of stability in North Korea rather than ideology. Given that scrapping North Korea's nuclear weapons and domestic stability in the North are important to us as well, we need to help China in its efforts to resume the stalled nuclear talks and its role as the arbitrator.

      Our diplomatic relationship with the United States and Japan must be also be strengthened. Conventional and non-conventional military deterrence against possible North Korean provocations must be maintained. Korean and U.S. military plans must be reviewed according to situational changes during the transitional period. The intelligence agencies of Korea, the U.S. and Japan should prepare for disruptions in the transitional period by building systematic cooperation and sharing information on North Korea.

      The Kim regime will sooner or later come to a crossroads if it is to survive. The mere fact that Kim Jong-un went to school in Switzerland is no guarantee that he will reform the Stalinist country. If he opts to relax tensions on the Korean Peninsula through improved inter-Korean relations and a reform and opening as a means of improving the lives of its people, however, the South should be ready to help the North's new leadership against the conservatives and hardliners.

      It will soon be possible to get a closer look at the way the new North Korean party leadership works when fresh reunions of families separated by the Korean War take place.

      If the North provokes the South and continues its nuclear development program as a means of consolidating the old system, on the other hand, Seoul should be ready to give up any lingering attachment to the six-party nuclear talks and substantially overhaul its North Korea policy to bring about freedom for the North Korean people.

      By Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University

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