Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, December 22, 2011

North Korea: The Known and Unknown

Image Detail
Kim Jong Un/Unknown photographer

Given the political and security uncertainties surrounding a post-Kim Jong Il government, there is, understandably, quite a bit of concern about North Korea. This is evident in media reporting and analysis. And it's also clear in the actions by and statements from Washington and its allies in Asia. South Korea put its military on high alert. Meantime, Team Obama has been busy communicating with key players in the region, like South Korea and Japan, to make sure everyone is on the same page--that they are all on guard and ready for any rapid changes in stability and security in Asia, yet still able to exercise much-needed restraint and caution.

At bottom, Washington is worried about the internal succession dynamics and the impact that they could have on the region. Specifically, the worry is that a paranoid North Korea will lash out militarily in an effort to showcase the country's strength and power despite the political transition. Moreover, the use of force could be a way for Kim Jong Un, the probable new leader, to demonstrate his leadership skills to North Korea's political and military elites.

Should North Korea make any provocative moves, and should other countries, such as Japan and  South Korea, in turn, respond assertively, the entire region could very quickly find itself on the brink of war. And remember, this is a region, broadly defined, with four powers (China, India, Russia, and Japan) and four nuclear powers (China, India, Russia, and North Korea). One small ill-advised move, one small miscalculation, could have disastrous consequences.

Right now, here is a reasonably good guess about what will happen in North Korea. Now that Kim Jong Il is gone, North Korea will undergo a political transition in power. Tapped by his father, the heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, known now as the "Great Successor," is expected to take the reins of power. He will try to form a coalition of support, starting with the military, which is where a considerable amount of power is vested, so as to consolidate his power. Given his age and inexperience, Kim Jong Un will likely lean on other people, probably military officials, family relatives, and his father's wise men, to guide him through the early days of his leadership.

Anything beyond the above is just wild speculation. There is so much we don't know about North Korea that it's impossible to make a good, sound estimate on the future domestic and foreign politics of the country. We know very little about Kim Jong Un, who is an unknown figure on the world stage. Even more worrisome, we don't have a good handle on what's happening inside North Korea. Indeed, the fact that we know so little about the country is one of the main stories that emerged after the death of Kim Jong Il. After all, the U.S., as well as probably every other country, didn't know about his death until North Korea's state media released the information almost a day and half after the fact.

In the end, this isn't too surprising. North Korea is an extraordinarily closed country, one that doesn't allow the outside world to get a good look at it and restrains and filters and distorts the information it releases to its public and the rest of the world. This should be a well-known observation by now. It's not as if this is the first time North Korea's opaqueness has been revealed. Just consider past information/intelligence gaps: "Pyongyang built a sprawling plant to enrich uranium that went undetected for about a year and a half until North Korean officials showed it off in late 2010 to an American nuclear scientist. The North also helped build a complete nuclear reactor in Syria without tipping off Western intelligence."

In my mind, there are lots of questions that need to be answered before we can start to think about how events will unfold going forward in North Korea. Here are some example questions.

1. Are there any existing actors or institutions that can take advantage of the power vacuum to move North Korea into a more modern and law abiding direction?

2. Is the son like dad? Is he as vengeful and vindictive? Is he as suspicious of outsiders and foreigners?Does he support bellicose policies?

3. What kind of relations does the son have with military officials? And does the military still support him now that Kim Jong Il is gone?

4. Does Kim Jong Un have any political skill or ambition? Can he build political coalitions? Can he play factions off one another? Can he maintain support from the people? Will he seek dominant power over the state, like his dad? Is willing to let other actors siphon power away from him? 

5. Specifically, who will guide Kim Jong Un during the political transition?

6. Are there any political alternatives to Kim Jong Un? And would, say, the military be willing to go against Kim Jong Il's wishes and overthrow the son and install its own preferred leader?

7. The China factor: we know China wants to preserve the status quo, which means supporting Kim Jong Un and the continuation of the Kim dynasty, if only to prevent a gathering storm on its borders. But that simple observation leaves us with a fuzzy and vague notion of how China will approach North Korea. Will China become even more active in North Korean politics? Will China urge or push North Korea to make any political or policy changes?

8. Now that Kim Jong Il is out of the picture, will South Korea's President Lee Myung Bak pull back on his so-called hardball tactics toward North Korea, perhaps offering the son an olivebrach as a way to reset North-South relations?
9. Lastly, reports surfaced Wednesday that North Korea might shift to a ruling council, or collective rule, headed by Kim Jong Un. While we know what this means in theory, it's difficult to say what it represents in practice. Is this a temporary move, a way to break the son into power gently and gradually? Or is this the first step in delimiting, if not completely undermining and eroding, the power of Kim Jong Un?

Certainly, I hope that North Korea decides to embark on a more modern and progressive and peaceful way of conducting its affairs. But in the meantime, before it's clear where North Korea is headed, I hope the U.S. and the West more generally can improve its intelligence capabilities. To be sure, a part of this requires Kim Jong Un and his military supporters to relax their grip on the state. But another part is grounded in creative and flexible thinking and strategizing--that is to say, finding novel ways to work around the impediments to information acquisition imposed by North Korea. For in the end, better intelligence would help the West glean answers to the above questions, thereby enabling it to prepare better for a variety of different political, security, and economic outcomes that may emerge over time.

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