What Obama Should Tell China as Transition Unfolds in North Korea

With the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, the long-awaited power transition in North Korea is now fully underway. For years now, Asian and Western governments have gamed out the possibilities of a post-Kim Korea. From fears of a complete implosion or civil war to feeble hopes for a North Korean glasnost, the very lack of knowledge about Pyongyang’s inner circle, governing procedures, and level of government stability frustrated any attempt to come up with a widely-accepted prediction and course of action on the part of the United States and its allies.

Kim’s death will likely prove not to be an immediate turning point for the Korean peninsula, and foreign policy hands will undoubtedly call for restraint on the part of Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo while the transition unfolds. Yet all three governments should maintain pressure on the North to open up and should not be lulled into making concessions simply because a new head of state will soon emerge.

The key concerns for Washington, Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo now fall into three main areas. First, is the immediate transfer of power and stability of the regime. Kim’s putative successor is his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, who was suddenly promoted to his position only in the past two years, after both his older brothers apparently fell out of favor.

Kim Jong-un, moreover, has been announced as the head of the state funeral committee, indicating that he will be the face of the regime over the next month. Korea watchers have doubted, however, whether he will have the personal strength to consolidate his position quickly or can count on the unwavering support of the military.

Equally important will be the actions of Jong-un’s uncle Chang Sung-taek, who has long been rumored to have taken over de facto power in the past year with the declining health of Kim Jong-il.

Like a Shakespearean play, however, there is also the factor of his elder brothers Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-chul. Either could try to make a power play to unseat their younger sibling or could be used as pawns by government or military elements seeking to shape the post Kim Jong-il government. Whether either of these brothers has designs to bid for leadership or is in league with a military faction is unknown, but such a move could take foreign observers by surprise, especially if Kim Jong-un fails to begin consolidating his power in the coming weeks and months.

The second major concern for foreign governments is whether the new leader or leaders will take any kind of military action to signal that they remain in complete control of the country and to warn the United States and South Korea not to take any actions that could push for the fall of the regime.

Pyongyang proved its willingness to use force to send messages and keep its adversaries off-balance through the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and bombardment of the small island of Yeongpyeong during 2010. If the new leadership decides that the use of force remains a legitimate way to try and intimidate its neighbors, then some kind of outburst may come in the next months.

This could turn out to be a major miscalculation, however, since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made it clear after the Yeongpyeong Island attack that a future provocation from the North would be met with a military response from the South. In what may be an unstable or divided North Korean government, a military crisis could quickly spiral out of control, with a new leadership forced to prove its worth in war or different factions controlling disparate military elements.

The third concern is what long-term policies the new leadership in Pyongyang will follow. Many observers have hoped that the next generation of North Korean leaders will chose to liberalize and open up the country in the hope of maintaining power by strengthening the economy, garnering foreign aid, or being accepted as a normal state by foreign countries. In such an optimistic view, this is the best chance for achieving North Korean de-nuclearization and an end to its proliferation activities and ballistic missile program. In short, this would represent the beginning of a new era for Asia and the removal of the single main impediment to regional stability.

There is no evidence, however, that any elements of the Kim regime is leaning toward such a policy. Although just last week South Korean media announced that the North had agreed to suspend its enriched uranium program in return for thousands of tons of food aid, that has been the first movement in the suspended Six Party Talks since 2009.

It is equally likely that a new and untested leader will instead seek to show that he is pushing the country forward with its nuclear weapons and missile programs so as to ensure its safety from any who would seek to take advantage of this time of confusion. If so, then Washington and Seoul should prepare for another round of nuclear and missile testing soon after Kim Jong-il’s funeral in late December.

Of course, all foreign governments must also prepare for black swans, like the dreaded implosion or rural uprisings leading to revolution. These would certainly draw in China, whose leaders will undoubtedly be in close contact with the new leadership in any case. But dramatic instability in the country could result in Beijing deciding to intervene using the pretext of maintaining stability along its border. That would present Seoul and Washington with a choice of how to respond or whether to accept an increased Chinese influence, if not some level of control, over the North.

In the coming confused days, the United States and South Korea should make clear to Pyongyang’s diplomats that no destabilizing actions will be tolerated and that the two will act to protect their joint interests and uphold peace on the peninsula and in the region, including Japan. U.S. forces should be ready to respond to any provocative action or possible humanitarian disaster.

Washington should also tell Beijing that any move on China’s part to take advantage of the transition so as to leave it in an enhanced position on the peninsula would harm U.S.-China relations and result in a further bulking up of the U.S. military in the Asia-Pacific region.

Finally, the North’s new leaders should be offered the opportunity to normalize their relations with the rest of the world and stop the half-century oppression of the Korean people. Should they spurn the offer, they must understand they will be fated suffer the continued slow collapse of their country’s economy and society. How well these messages are received by all will help determine whether the Korean peninsula, and possibly the region, enters a new era or is plunged into conflict.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian and security studies at the American Enterprise Institute.