Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
North Korean Succession and the Risks of Instability
North Korean Succession and the Risks of Instability
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Risks of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea
Risks of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 230 / Asia

North Korean Succession and the Risks of Instability

Despite last week’s abrupt shuffle at the top of the military leadership, Kim Jŏng-ŭn appears to be firmly established as the new leader of North Korea, completing a faster and smoother power transition than many experts anticipated.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download Full Report

Executive Summary

Transitions often present risks to authoritarian regimes, but the succession in North Korea has apparently passed with few problems. With no opposition from the military and China’s clear support, there are no signs to suggest that Kim Jŏng-ŭn, the young leader who replaced his father, Kim Jong-il, following his death in December 2011, is anything but in charge in his own right. Far from creating a regency of older family members or generals, the North Korean system has maintained its focus on a single leader and projected an image of stability and unity as it celebrates the centenary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il-sung. While that image appears to be accurate, there is nothing to suggest that the new leader is or will become inclined to take measures that would either improve the lot of the country’s citizens or reduce the regional frictions that Pyongyang is at the centre of.

Kim Il-sung invested considerable time and effort to ensure the transfer of power to his son, Kim Jong-il. The regime had two decades to prepare after Kim was anointed successor in 1974. In contrast, the second dynastic succession appeared to be rushed, leading many analysts to believe it would fail. However, though Kim Jong-il did not devote as much attention to succession as his father had, most North Korea watchers failed to recognise that the regime began internal preparations about a decade before his death. Many surmised that a committee of powerful figures, probably from the military, would step in and either oust Kim Jŏng-ŭn in a coup d’état or prop him up as a figurehead and rule behind the scenes.

Most of this analysis was based on flawed assumptions and misunderstandings of North Korean ideology and political institutions. Only a small number of individuals would have the capacity to conspire and execute a coup against the Kim family. Many analysts simply assumed the interests of the senior ruling elite and Kim Jŏng-ŭn diverge, but there are no clear signs that they do, despite the dismissal of Vice Marshal Ri Yŏng-ho, the former chief of the General Staff, on 15 July 2012. Arguably, the interests of senior party and military officials remain almost perfectly aligned.

Kim’s youth and inexperience often have been cited as reasons necessitating a regency of senior officials to rule until he is up to the task. Some have argued that he could not wield the extraordinary powers of his father, and therefore power would devolve in an unavoidable decentralisation process. Whether the regime continues as a personalised dictatorship or assumes a decentralised leadership structure matters, because it could affect several important policy decisions, including the possibility of economic reform and the development or abandonment of nuclear weapons.

Despite widespread speculation, several factors support the continuation of an extremely concentrated, one-man dictatorship. Chronic insecurity, a command economy, a strong tradition of democratic centralism, a complex structure of political institutions and a well-developed indigenous ideology all reinforce the Kim family cult and concentration of power. The apparent result is a smooth succession with little prospect for reform in the near future.

Although the succession is complete, the leadership faces difficult dilemmas. The poor economy remains the greatest long-term threat to the regime. Simple reforms could improve resource allocation, efficiency and productivity but would require repudiation of a decades-old system and ideology that form the foundation of Kim Jŏng-ŭn’s political legitimacy. Renouncing his grandfather’s and father’s legacies would not be rational if he wishes to remain in power.

Kim’s youth and relatively charismatic personality suggest he could be in power for decades. But if the regime fails to reform, the costs in terms of human insecurity and food insecurity will remain high. Continued isolation and “military first” orientation would predispose the regime to maintain its confrontational posture. Without the resources to sustain a conventional arms race with its adversaries, however, it would need increasingly to rely upon asymmetric capabilities, including nuclear weapons, for its security.

This indicates a period of uncertainty just as several key countries – China, Russia and the U.S. – face leadership changes or elections. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) leadership seems to be feeling international pressure aimed at dissuading it from another nuclear test. However, as others increasingly focus on domestic politics, Pyongyang might feel there is little risk in testing more long-range missiles or another nuclear device. If it is strongly motivated to do so, there is probably little that could dissuade it. The only realistic strategy would be robust deterrence and containment.

North Korea under Kim Jŏng-ŭn is stable. There is no sign of any opposition to the dynastic succession, and the barriers to change are tremendous. However, the system is not sustainable forever, and it is difficult to imagine a gradual transformation and peaceful integration with South Korea. Meanwhile, reinforcing the status quo will not bring prosperity, only more backwardness and oppression for millions of North Koreans.

Seoul/Beijing/Brussels, 25 July 2012

Report 259 / Asia

Risks of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea

In the shadow of growing North Korean threats, South Korea needs to reform its intelligence apparatus to restore public confidence while enhancing the country’s intelligence capacity.

Executive Summary

A failure of intelligence on the Korean peninsula – the site of the world’s highest concentration of military personnel with a history of fraught, sometimes violent, sabre-rattling – could have catastrophic consequences. Yet the South Korean intelligence community has revealed its susceptibility to three types of pathologies – intelligence failure, the politicisation of intelligence, and intervention in domestic politics by intelligence agencies – which bring into stark relief the potential for grievous miscalculation and policy distortions when addressing the threat from North Korea. Moves by intelligence agencies to recover or bolster their reputations by compromising sensitive information have compounded the problem. Efforts are needed to reform the South’s intelligence capacities, principally by depoliticising its agencies and ensuring adequate legislative and judicial oversight. Lawmakers and bureaucrats also need to fulfil their responsibilities to protect classified information and refrain from leaking sensitive intelligence for short-term personal political gains.

The Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) has been plagued by a series of scandals in its intelligence services since the fall of 2012. Many in the main opposition party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (then named the Democratic Party), believe the National Intelligence Service (NIS) swayed the outcome of the December presidential election through an internet smear campaign against opposition candidate Moon Jae-in to ensure a victory by President Park Geun-hye.

The accusations and discord paralysed the National Assembly for much of 2013 and the Park administration’s legislative agenda has been put on hold. NIS employees including former Director Wŏn Se-hun were indicted for violating electoral laws and the NIS Act governing the conduct of staff.

The public’s trust and confidence in the intelligence community has been damaged by the scandals. The ROK government has been unable to implement serious reform because the necessary legislative and executive implementation also is politicised. The secrecy and technical nature of intelligence mean that most citizens – including many lawmakers – have little insight into the intelligence process and its impact on policy. The president, whose ruling Saenuri Party has a majority in the National Assembly, and NIS directors have shown little or no interest in serious reform because it almost certainly would mean a reduction in their powers.

Historical legacies have had a great impact on the structure and organisation of the South Korean intelligence community. Japanese colonialism, liberation, the Korean War and decades of authoritarian rule mean a heavy emphasis on military intelligence, internal security and counter-espionage. Democratisation in the late 1980s led to reform; tremendous progress has been made, but the process is incomplete.

This report explains why South Korean intelligence pathologies matter to the international community, and how the country’s intelligence processes work. The institutional mapping of the intelligence community provides a basis for understanding when, where, why and how intelligence weaknesses can occur in the ROK.

Through separate initiatives, findings by the main opposition party and former NIS Director Nam Jae-jun independently agreed that four broad reforms are necessary: ending the practice of embedding NIS officers in South Korean institutions such as political parties, the legislature, ministries and media firms; establishing greater oversight to ensure intelligence officers obey the law; providing greater whistle-blower protections; and restricting cyberspace operations to North Korean entities and not South Korean citizens or institutions. These measures should not be difficult to implement given South Korea’s broad consensus, but this is not sufficient.

Institutional changes also are needed. Criminal investigation powers held by the NIS should be transferred to the Supreme Prosecutors Office, and NIS directors should receive confirmation from the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee after being nominated by the president. Special courts or judges should be selected to provide oversight and prosecution of sensitive national security cases. Finally, intelligence capabilities should be enhanced but only with appropriate oversight along with checks and balances to reduce the likelihood of the intelligence pathologies outlined in this report.

The stakes are high. Were intelligence failure or the politicisation of intelligence to lead to open conflict on the Korean peninsula, the costs would be enormous. The ROK is the world’s seventh largest exporter and ninth largest importer of merchandise. Seoul also has a mutual defence treaty with Washington, so any conflict would draw in the immediate involvement of 28,500 U.S. military personnel deployed in South Korea. North Korea and China likewise have a bilateral treaty that includes a security clause whereby both parties pledge to assist in case the other is attacked.

Quality intelligence is critical for managing the challenges. Pyongyang is committed to increasing its nuclear and missile capabilities and it presents other asymmetric and conventional military threats. South Korea, with twice the population, about 40 times the economic output and significant technological advantages, is expanding its counterstrike capabilities and has pledged to deploy its so-called “kill chain” to identify and neutralise any imminent attack. High-quality intelligence also is needed for non-conflict scenarios, particularly in anticipation of the North’s state collapse or a massive humanitarian crisis. In the case of a North Korean collapse and sudden unification, Seoul would have to make quick decisions to prevent a rapid deterioration of the situation.

Without accurate intelligence, several types of errors could occur: a failure to perceive an imminent attack; incorrectly assessing that an attack is imminent; or failing to develop effective contingency planning. On the Korean peninsula, given the vulnerabilities in the South’s current intelligence apparatus, any of these scenarios constitute a distinct possibility.