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Kim Jong-Il’s Death - A prospect for change or instability?

Preeti Nalwa was Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 21, 2011

    Kim Jong-Il’s death on December 17, 2011 has not only provoked concerns regarding security and stability on the Korean peninsula, but has also raised hopes of improved engagement with North Korea’s new leadership. The primary concern of the stakeholders has been a smooth and non-interventionist succession in North Korea which would ideally preclude a domestic power struggle, ensure the safety of North Korea’s controversial nuclear arsenal and prevent the conflagration of regional hostility on account of external maneuverings plausibly by the US in manipulating the transition to their advantage. North Korea’s state media is already urging the nation to support and rally behind Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of the “Dear Leader”, who designated him as his heir apparent. The uniquely hereditary succession in this communist state would place a novice leader in the privileged posts of Chairman of the National Defense Commission, Commander of the Korean People’s Army and head of the ruling Worker’s Party.

    Domestic instability and discontent amounting to a ‘regime collapse’ favours the US scheme of putting in place a puppet regime that would be favorably disposed towards democratic norms and denuclearization of North Korea. However, since Russia and China have growing economic and political interests in North Korea, they would be interested in safeguarding an uninterrupted succession of Kim Jong-un.

    China has been North Korea’s major ally providing critical political support and economic aid in times of need. In the tense times that ensued after the sinking of the Cheonan on March 26, 2010 and later the exchange of fire on the Yeonpyeong Island November 23, 2010, it was China’s intervention that prevented harsher reaction by the US and South Korea against North Korea. On May 20, 2011, Kim Jong-un had accompanied his uncle Jang Song-taek (vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission) who was made a four-star general by his father in September 2010, on a trip to China. The trip was purportedly planned by Kim Jong-Il to seek assurance of Chinese support for his son’s leadership and to consolidate his leadership status. Any upheaval on the Korean peninsula is likely to result in widespread migration across its borders into China; the additional burden of providing food, employment and security for the migrant population is unacceptable for China. Subsequent demands for civic participation and political rights by such communities are also a cause of concern. China would definitely not like to see a new problem arise when it is still devoting its efforts at keeping the numerous ethnic groups under control. It is also in China’s strategic interest to support a pro-China regime in North Korea and maintain North Korea as a buffer that would halt any plausible extension of the US influence closer to its border.

    During Kim Jong-Il’s August 2011 trip to Siberia to meet President Dmitry Medvedev, it was agreed upon that North Korea and Russia would hold their first joint-military exercise next year. The final decision to stage the search-and-rescue operations was taken when Russia’s Eastern Military District commander Igor Muginov visited Pyongyang in late August. A clash of divergent interests could revive the divisions and hostilities along the lines of the Cold War rivalry. But at a juncture when the US is preoccupied with the prospects of economic slowdown, the upcoming presidential elections and haunted by the specter of cutting national and military expenditure to reduce national debt, the Obama administration will refrain from initiating a step which will bring it into a direct confrontation with China and additional tensions with Russia which is contemplating on abjuring from the New Start Treaty signed on February 5, 2011.

    Moreover, unless and until an issue assumes the importance of an impending strategic contingency, Obama will also not contravene the ceasefire agreement reached between the US and North Korea on July 27, 1953 which halted the Korean War. A formal peace agreement between the two adversaries ending the Korean War has not yet been signed and technically they remain at war with each other. On the other hand, the departure of the hated Kim Jong-Il and the relatively untainted political profile of Kim Jong-un provide an opportunity to make fresh efforts to alter the protracted stalemate over the negotiations on nuclear issues. Considerable diplomatic legwork has already been done for reopening the Six-Party Talks on denuclearization in the US-North Korea bilateral meetings in July (New York) and November 2011 (Geneva). On December 15, 2011, officials from the US and North Korea had met in Beijing to discuss the resumption of humanitarian aid shipments to the impoverished North Korea. Glyn T. Davies, the US special representative for the Six-Party Talks, Robert King, the envoy for North Korean human rights issues and Jon Brause, a senior US aid official met Ri Gun, a senior North Korea Foreign Ministry official. The talks were held for two days and were expected to result in an announcement of 240,000 tons of food-aid package, consisting of 20,000 tons of high protein biscuits and vitamins for the malnourished children per month for a year.

    At a time when the nation is facing crippling food-shortages and is in mourning, a quick and a quiet decision for the disbursement of this aid-package would go a long way as a good-will gesture in repairing the inimical relations between the two enemy nations. It would also be symbolic in showing that the US intends to maintain stability in North Korea. Recall the context of Kim Jong-Il’s succession. The October 21, 1994 Agreed Framework between the US and North Korea was signed when he had just come to power after the passing of his father, the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, on July 8, 1994. Security analysts have observed discernible patterns in North Korea’s behavior, the most prominent is to first escalate tensions and then demand aid. North Korea did conduct two test-fires of its new KN-06 short-range missiles with an estimated range of 120 kilometers (72 miles) off its east coast on December 19, 2011 the same day its state news announced Kim Jong-Il’s death. But they appear to be low-profile routine tests and with no malicious intent.

    In order to be prepared for any contingency, South Korea has put its military on alert and convened its National Security Council for an emergency meeting. South Korea’s President Lee Myung-Bak had a telephonic conversation with the US President Barack Obama and it is believed that the two leaders agreed to closely co-operate and monitor the situation together. In Japan, home to a sizable North Korean community, the PM Yoshihiko Noda chaired an emergency security meeting and ordered officials to bolster intelligence-gathering on North Korea. On December 12, 2011 Japan had launched a new surveillance radar satellite into orbit from the Tanegashima Space Centre in southwestern Japan amid concerns over North Korea’s improving missile programme (and also to monitor natural disasters in the region). PM Noda also instructed his officials to work closely with the US, China and South Korea. The Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa made the observation that any abnormal North Korean military movement was absent.

    However, anticipating expected behaviour from North Korea, indicators point more to the prospect of an agreement with Kim Jong-un on suspending its uranium enrichment and/or missile testing rather than on complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID). The agreement might not come as quickly as the one engineered with Kim Jong-Il in 1994, for he had had a longer stint in political affairs as compared to his totally inexperienced son, who is most likely to remain under the tutelage of his uncle Jang Song-taek for some time. After the funeral ceremony scheduled to be held on December 28, 2011 is over, and the mourning period ends a day later, the actual predicament of the region will begin to unravel.

    The author is a doctoral scholar at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.

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