What Lies Ahead for N.Korea?

      December 21, 2011 14:31

      Han Sung-joo

      North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's death came sooner than expected. It is of course impossible to predict how North Korea and inter-Korean relations will progress, but some clues may be provided by comparing the present situation with the events after the death of regime founder Kim Il-sung in July 1994.

      On July 8, 1994, the state media announced Kim Il-sung's death in a special broadcast at noon. At that time, I was attending a meeting with other government officials to prepare for the upcoming inter-Korean summit scheduled for July 25 that year, and apart from the special daytime broadcast, the circumstances were markedly different.

      First, Kim Il-sung was hailed by the North Korean people as their "great leader," and they exhibited true sadness when he died. They still refer to him as their "eternal leader." But it is hard to imagine Kim Jong-il being seen in the same way, because he lost the trust of his people by driving the economy to ruin and causing more than two million people to starve to death. The botched currency reform in late 2009 was the last straw.

      Second, until Kim Il-sung's death in 1994, Kim Jong-il had had around 20 years of training and preparation after being appointed successor in the 1970s. In contrast, Kim Jong-il's successor Jong-un was appointed vice chairman of the Workers Party's Central Military Commission only in September 2010, and had an apprenticeship of barely 15 months.

      Third, Kim Il-sung may have been responsible for starting the 1950-53 Korean War, but he witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states and attempted to compromise with South Korea and begin talks to discuss his country's nuclear weapons program. When tensions mounted on the Korean Peninsula due to the North Korean nuclear crisis in 1994, Kim Il-sung invited former U.S. president Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang and sent Seoul a message accepting then South Korean president Kim Young-sam's proposal to hold an inter-Korean summit.

      In contrast, Kim Jong-il pushed for North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and missiles and use them as a tool to pressure the international community to cave in to his demands. He instituted the "songun" or military-first doctrine as the basis of his rule and appointed military officers to top government positions, orchestrating attacks against the Navy corvette Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island last year.

      Fourth, in 1994, Seoul and Beijing marked the second anniversary of diplomatic ties. South Korea and its allies -- the U.S. and Japan -- as well as China and Russia exerted considerable pressure on Pyongyang over its nuclear program. But in 2011, those countries are unable to put much pressure on the North due to fatigue over the drawn-out negotiations to denuclearize the North. China wants to prevent a collapse of the North Korean regime while maintaining a certain degree of influence over the country. In order to achieve that, it has permitted the North's attempt to develop nuclear weapons to some degree and has been protective of the regime.

      Given these differences, a clearer picture of North Korea's future emerges. First, it is hard to imagine Kim Jong-un becoming as powerful as his father. It remains to be seen whether the military or the Workers Party will gain the upper hand, but there is a strong possibility that North Korea will be ruled by a collective leadership, with Kim Jong-un as a mere titular head.

      That makes it less likely there will be any revolutionary breakthrough such as a "grand bargain," whereby North Korea could expect comprehensive rewards if it abandons its nuclear program as well as reforming and opening up. North Korea would need decisive leadership by a powerful head to change its existing policies, but that is unlikely to happen in a post-Kim Jong-il North Korea.

      When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, South Korea and the international community had high hopes of major changes in the North. But the regime survived the death of its leader, a major famine and international isolation. Now, despite a food shortage and economic hardships, the regime will probably be able to avoid a worst-case scenario due to unity among its top officials and assistance from China.

      While depending entirely on China for assistance, North Korea is expected to strengthen its ties with Russia, while attempting to improve relations with the U.S. and Japan. North Korea needs to block the winds of change from blowing in from the outside world but continue to extract economic assistance. Paradoxically, there is now less of a danger for the regime of a public uprising since the people are with no clear target to topple now their dictator is dead.

      South Korea must watch the fluid situation in North Korea carefully and prod the country toward the path of peace and prosperity without fearing reforms. It must keep working closely with the U.S., China, Japan and Russia throughout this process.

      By former foreign minister Han Sung-joo

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