Ding Dong Kim Jong Il is Dead … but what will follow?

2011 — the annus horribilus for dictators — ends with the death of Kim Jong Il.  But the only thing certain now is great uncertainty for the next 12-18 months.

What comes now is the regency, with Chang Song Taek, Kim Jong-Il’s brother-in-law, acting as regent for the young heir, Kim Jong Un. We do not know how stable this regency will be, and whether there will be challenges from within the military to the young heir’s ascendancy.

We do know that there will be pressures from reform from China.  China has long wanted North Korea to follow its path toward authoritarian capitalism, both to avoid the instability risks attending to North Korean’s pathetic economy and to stem the flow of economic refugees into China.  Chinese officials have already indicated that they see the changing of the guard in North Korea as an opportunity to seek such reforms.

But we do not know whether Chang or the younger Kim will welcome such changes, or are wedded to Kim Jong Il’s total system.  We could see a dynamic in which Chang and Kim resist reform and China looks to more progressive elements in the military; or we could see the reverse in which Chang and Kim seek to lead a change and conservatives in the military resist.

One thing we can know is that this transition will be far riskier than the transition from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il.  That transition was prepared over a decade, took place at a time when China was not interested in promoting any changes in N. Korea, and when the world as a whole was full of dictatorships and  much more tolerant of domestic repression.  Maintaining or even tightening the dictatorship was possible.  Today, with dictatorships fading or changing from Morocco to Myanmar, the world is a different place for an aging autocrat seeking to hand over power wholly intact to a child heir.

In addition to pressure from China for change, the new regime will likely face internal challenges as well.  Cell phones and the internet have started to penetrate North Korea; news of changing regimes elsewhere will have an impact on potential opposition organizers.  If there are any cracks in the solid front of the regime in the course of this transition, popular unrest may start to creep through.

How should the U.S. react?  Some have argued that we should withhold all aid; others have urged a new surge in aid to try to build a relationship with the new regime.  In my view, the U.S. needs a more graduated strategy than ‘all or nothing’ aid.  “Humanitarian” aid ceases to be humanitarian if it is held hostage to politics.  So let humanitarian aid continue; the  North Korean people need it, and when regime change comes (and it will; I place the odds of Kim Jong Un dying as an uncontested leader of North Korea at about zero), North Koreans will remember whether the U.S. aided the people or not.

There should be a separate slate of benefits — on trade, on agriculture, on travel for leaders — that are on offer to reward cooperation.  But it would be a mistake to expect any sudden changes in North Korean’s behavior now; the new regime will first be seeking to consolidate itself and act tough.  So now is not the time to expect any movement from the North Korean side.

Most important, the U.S. needs to work closely with China on N. Korea policy to coordinate their approaches and plan for the eventual transition of the N. Korean regime.  Whether that transition is to an authoritarian capitalism model like that of China, or a liberal capitalism model like that of South Korea, or a halting back and forth, remains to be seen.  But the totalitarian communist model is clearly broken, and cannot survive for long.

So the best strategy would be ‘watchful waiting.’  At first, we can expect internal struggles, and some aggressive moves to demonstrate ‘toughness.’  But in the coming years, the pressures on the regime to change, from within and without, will be overwhelming and we should look for signs of change that can be supported.  Most of all we should be prepared for the day when the North Korean regime ceases to be viable, and South Korea has to take on the challenge of integration.  It is now just a matter of time.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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