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Sadly, Kim's Death Won't Be a Democratic Opportunity for North Korea

In its first reaction to news that Kim Jong Il—North Korea’s “Dear Leader” and maximum tyrant—was dead, the White House said that President Obama reaffirmed our “strong commitment to the stability of the Korean peninsula.” This presages continuing an unbroken, bipartisan streak of bad policy in regard to the rogue nuclear state. As usual, when the watchword is “stability,” the result is anything but.

First off, expect many in the West to get the transition wrong. Kim Jong Un—the recently deceased dictator’s third son—may be the formal face of the regime. But it’s extremely unlikely the 27-year-old, who wasn’t even groomed for leadership until recently, is going to run the mafia government of North Korea. Kim Jong Il was more than 50 when he took power and had been a longtime understudy of his own father.

The combination of Korean culture and the nature of the criminal enterprise that is the Pyongyang regime, make it unlikely Jong Un will have real power. Instead, expect a small group of generals to run the government. There is also a decent chance the young man’s uncle will serve as a regent.

Regardless, expect copious speculation that this marks an opportunity to get North Korea to open itself to the world. You’ll hear our foreign policy establishment once again talk about how this is a new chapter for North Korea and we should reach out to the new government to negotiate.

The Obama administration was already at work at this before Kim died. Despite a lack of formal diplomatic relations, our government has talked recently to the Pyongyang regime in both Geneva and New York. The White House wants to restart food aid to North Korea—the traditional bribe the U.S. and other governments have used to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table. (The food inevitably goes to the regime elite—not starving North Koreans.)

Unfortunately, as both Presidents Clinton and Bush learned the hard way, Pyongyang will pocket aid and concessions, but it has no intention of delivering on any deal to denuclearize and otherwise behave. 

There are two reasons this remains true: First, the cast of characters is basically the same and they will still perceive it to be in their interests to be anti-U.S. and extort aid from the rest of the world. Second, we have done nothing to dislodge the two key pillars of support for the Pyongyang regime: Chinese government support and steps Pyongyang takes to keep its people in a brutalized daze.

Regarding China, it is ironic—and sad—that the White House and Beijing share the same goal: a “stability” that ends up preserving the regime. The Obama administration—like its two predecessors—will continue to pretend that Beijing is being helpful on North Korea, will push it to the negotiating table, and help us get that illusive grand bargain. Meanwhile, Beijing will go right on aiding its communist ally regardless of its conduct—something of which Pyongyang is well aware. By never even criticizing Beijing for this—and by willfully ignoring the obvious and unconditional lifeline Beijing provides Pyongyang—we delude ourselves and enable China’s dangerous conduct.

We have also failed to support dissent in North Korea in a real way—especially by aiding broadcasters countering the regime’s total control of information. In her failed quest for an enforceable nuclear deal, Condoleezza Rice saw to it that President Bush’s “freedom agenda” was never seriously applied to North Korea. Since then, the only person more reclusive than Kim Jong Il has been President Obama’s envoy for North Korean human rights.

Kim’s death could have been a moment of democratic opportunity. How ironic would it have been if Arab Spring came to East Asia not first in China, but in Stalinist North Korea? Unfortunately, such an outcome is now highly unlikely, because the free world has not taken steps to side with the North Korean people against those who enslave them.

Our military, our State Department, our CIA, our taxpayer-funded National Endowment for Democracy—all are completely unprepared to do much other than sit back and watch this transition. And that is a shame from the point of view of U.S. security in a region that is critical to our economy. We have exhibited great “stability” in pursuing policies and disarmament fantasies that will again ensure little more than volatility and insecurity.

Christian Whiton is a former deputy special envoy for North Korean human rights, and is currently a principal at DC International Advisory. He is a frequent contributor to Fox News Opinion.

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).