North Korea's leaders tomorrow will hold a rare gathering of the ruling Korean Workers' Party. Analysts believe they will name the eventual successor to current dictator Kim Jong Il. This creates a challenge for foreign ministries around the Pacific: how to react. Some will undoubtedly see an opportunity to revive nuclear talks with a new, and hopefully more reasonable, leader in Pyongyang. Instead, Washington and allied capitals should seek to give an already wobbly Pyongyang regime a shove.
Kim Jong Il's third son, Kim Jong Eun, is expected to be named as successor. The elder Kim was anointed as the eventual successor to his father Kim Il Sung at the last Party assembly in 1980. At that time he was 39 years old and already well entrenched in the Party leadership. He had the 14 ensuing years to prepare for his role as "Dear Leader" of the country. Kim Jong Eun probably won't have that advantage. His father is said to be in declining health. And the son himself is only in his 20s and has never been observed playing a major role in Pyongyang politics.
One consequence is that those who believe a diplomatic bargain can be had from North Korea will be disappointed. Because Kim Jong Eun is unlikely to be able to take full control right away, Pyongyang under "new" management will still have many of the same personalities, institutional memories and incentives of the past two decades. Those leaders have taken to heart Kim Jong Il's example of the benefits of double-dealing. On his watch, Pyongyang convinced both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations that it would surrender its nuclear weapons program in return for copious amounts of foreign assistance. Instead he was able to pocket the aid and keep the nuclear program—even sinking a South Korean naval ship and killing 46 sailors—without any adverse consequences.
The fact that more nuclear talks would be futile doesn't mean America and its allies have no options, however. The apparent fragility of the succession and weakness of the heir apparent offer clues to a better strategy: political warfare aimed at helping the North Korean people topple the regime.
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Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-09. He is author of the new book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books).