With the death of North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, an anxiety for peace in the region has been expressed at different quarters. Given the short time available to Kim Jong Un, the youngest son of the deceased leader, for smooth and stable transition, such apprehension is not unreasonable.
Although Kim III has been hailed as a great “Succession Leader” by the North Korean state machinery, he did not have the adequate time to prepare for transition unlike to his father Kim Jong Il. The second Kim had assumed the country’s leadership in 1994 after Kim Il Sung had died. Some analysts are concerned whether suddenness of Kim Jong Il’s demise would have adverse implications on the regional stability.
Despite some unease in international arena, China as North Korea’s generous benefactor and immediate neighbor, has wisely prodded up the new leader expressing support for maintaining peace and stability in the country, East Asia, and the world at large. This augurs well for peaceful transition.
Professor Kim Hyun Sik, who taught the Dear Leader in the late 1950s at Namsen Government High School in Pyongyang, looks worried. His weariness is whether the new Kim will continue his father’s policy of “Military-First”. This policy accords the highest priority to military. Truly speaking North Korea, a country of about 20 million, maintains a standing army of 1.1 million, which is one of the largest in the world.
In his Foreign Affairs essay, “The Secret History of Kim Jong Il”, Professor Kim Hyun Sik, recalls Kim Jong Il who had declared ‘What good in this Earth without North Korea?’ As opined by Sik, the late Kim Jong Il believed that he could stabilize the nation and make the country powerful and prosperous by growing the military.
Professor Sik’s observations that Kim Jong Il had successfully mobilized international aid for North Korea through the policy of military extortion are difficult to refute. It is a fact that international trade and finance have limited role in sustaining the economy in North Korea. The country has survived on bottomless international assistance made available due to nuclear brinkmanship in the words of Kim Hyun Sik.
Jennifer Lind also shares a gloomy picture of North Korea’s future. In a Foreign Affairs essay, “Kim Jong Un takes the World’s Worst Job” Lind contends that change in country’s leadership has sparked fears of instability with dangerous implications for the Korean Peninsula. At a time of protracted food crisis in North Korea, where millions are stung by hunger, Kim III has taken the world’s worst job.
Nevertheless, meeting after Kim Jong Il’s death, the U.S. Secretary of State and the Japanese Foreign Minister have declared the shared desire for peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula. Considering their leverage on North Korea, such announcement sounds encouraging. Both Washington and Seoul have been closely allaying with each other on North Korea, particularly in nuclear issues. The U.S. President Obama’s December 20, 2011 announcement that his administration wants peaceful, stable transition in North Korea has been shared by Japan. Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president, has echoed the same sentiment.
Despite above positive signals, pessimistic assessment has been provided by Marcus Noland, an expert on North Korean affairs, who is associated with the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington D.C. To him North Korea is a country that has remained insensitive to punishments and rewards from abroad. He contends that foreign powers have no leverage on North Korea. Our experience does not fully substantiate his analysis. The provocation created in the peninsula by North Korean missile attack on South Korean island in November, 2010 was contained by timely diplomatic intervention from the U.S.
This has also to be understood against the recent food aid initiative of the Obama presidency to help North Koreans suffering from hunger. It may be a coincidence that when the Dear Leader was suffering a stroke on December 17, the Americans were meeting the North Korean officials to discuss the resumption of food aid to the country. Understandably, the above aid is conditional on North Korea’s willingness to halt uranium-enrichment program.
Because of North Korea’s troubled history (1950-53 Korean War) and the country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons program in contravention of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we find analysts offering pessimistic prediction. In this vein, Michael J. Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Associate professor of International Relations at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. has said, “Both Kims were masters of brinkmanship and they continually gained leverage with Seoul and the West, by driving military provocations to the brink of war”.
In tune with such grim reality, some observers of Korean affairs have quoted the North Koran authorities saying that in 2012 the country is to become a full-fledged nuclear weapons state. Next year marks the hundredth birthday of Kim Il Sung. They believe that Pyongyang has every incentive to make good on such ambitious promises. The western military interventions against Iraq and Libya have reinforced North Koreans’ conviction that nuclear weapons are the most credible deterrent measures.
Not necessarily, retention of a few nuclear weapons by North Korea will jeopardize its relations with the U.S. as articulated by Yoon Young-kwan, who was South Korea’s Foreign Minister from 2003-04, and currently a Professor of International Relations in Seoul National University. He holds the view that by pledging not to develop long-range missiles North Korea could cultivate good relations with America. If Pakistan did it, why not North Korea, he further asks.
The smooth transition in North Korea is in everyone’s interest. Under the present circumstances Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow and Washington have got the most crucial roles to play in fostering peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula. Hopefully, the policy of “Strategic Patience”, pursued by the U.S. and South Korea that focuses on denuclearization, will be given continuity in the regime of Kim III too.