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North Korean Succession and the Risks of Instability
North Korean Succession and the Risks of Instability
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
North Korea: Beyond the Six-Party Talks
North Korea: Beyond the Six-Party Talks
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.

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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

North Korean soldiers look south on the north side as a U.S. soldier stands guard upon Belgium's Prince Philippe's visit in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul, in May 2009. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak
Report 269 / Asia

North Korea: Beyond the Six-Party Talks

Prospects are bleak that the Six-Party Talks can lead to a denuclearised Korean peninsula, notably since North Korea has made nuclear weapons an integral part of its identity. The international community must open new channels of communication and interaction, give greater roles to international organisations, the private sector and civil society.

Executive Summary

The Six-Party Talks were established in 2003 as a multilateral forum to achieve the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. However, the parties (China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.) have not met since December 2008, when the talks stalled over verification issues. There is a strong international consensus that North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) should come into compliance with UN Security Council resolutions and abandon its nuclear weapons program but widespread disagreement over the strategy and policies for achieving this. Nuclear arms are now an integral part of North Korea’s national identity, however, so it is increasingly apparent that absent a sea change in ideology or leadership in Pyongyang, the Six-Party Talks will not achieve their central aim. Though governments need to keep up pressure for disarmament and maintain the dynamics of the current containment and deterrence policy, they also should establish – and encourage other international actors to establish – new channels of engagement that may further incremental change in North Korean society.

Since the end of the Cold War, the DPRK has developed a state ideology ofsŏn’gun (“military first”). Furthermore, the third generation of Kim family rule has adopted the pyŏngjin line, calling for simultaneous economic and nuclear technology development for both peaceful and military purposes, as Kim Jong-un’s contribution to “scientific socialist thought” and essential to the continuing Korean revolution. Nuclear status has been enshrined in the constitution and statutes, and state propaganda emphasises the role of nuclear weapons, satellite launchers and nuclear technology in the nation’s modernisation and prosperity. DPRK officials often have repeated that Pyongyang will denuclearise when the rest of the world does. Denuclearisation would require a transformation of that identity, in effect revolutionary change. The North has offered to return to the Six-Party Talks “without preconditions” to discuss regional security, nuclear disarmament and other issues – but not denuclearisation.

South Korea (ROK) faces an existential threat from the North’s growing nuclear arsenal. It is divided, however, over policy toward Pyongyang. After activity was detected around the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri in spring 2014, it invested considerable effort in an attempt to restart the Six-Party Talks. By late February 2015, five parties had reached a consensus on the minimum criteria to present to Pyongyang. To test intentions and sincerity on denuclearisation, Seoul has pushed for “exploratory talks” in a track two setting as a first step toward resuming the formal six-party process. If Pyongyang does not meet the criteria for resumption, which have not been disclosed publicly, the U.S., South Korea and others appear poised to take increasingly punitive measures.

There is little likelihood the U.S. would enter upon resumed talks unless there is a much greater prospect than appears to exist that they would be pursued in good faith by the North and not simply for manipulation and propaganda. Experience under the Agreed Framework in the 1990s, in addition to widespread perception that the DPRK is unreliable, make the Obama administration, and almost certainly any future president, sensitive to likely domestic blowback from another failed diplomatic effort with Pyongyang. China does not face the same domestic risks if the talks were to restart and turn out badly. It could always take credit for hosting them, and in the case of failure, blame the DPRK and/or the U.S. Its consistent position has been to restart dialogue even with low likelihood for success.

Japan also has a high threat perception regarding the North’s nuclear and missile programs and generally will support South Korea and the U.S. over the talks. Bilateral discussion of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s raised hopes for improved relations, but that process also has stalled. Without a satisfactory resolution on abductions, Tokyo will be even more inclined to take a harder line on the nuclear issue. Russia wants the talks to resume as soon as possible. Though sensitive about Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile activities, it believes Washington exaggerates the threat, and its focus is on economic cooperation, which the North welcomes as helping reduce economic dependence on Beijing.

Whether or not an intended exploratory meeting is held, the gap between positions is too broad to expect the Six-Party Talks to resume as a good-faith effort to denuclearise the peninsula. For that, either the DPRK must abandon its nuclear identity and ambitions, or the international community must accept transformation of the talks into a different type of institution that does not address denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Neither seems possible, so deterrence and containment will remain fundamental for dealing with a nuclear North.

Deterrence is imperfect and could fail, but it will remain a pillar of security in the Korean peninsula for the foreseeable future. At the same time, it needs to be complemented by a broader engagement with North Korea on a range of issues. The self-imposed isolation of Pyongyang perpetuates a dangerous regime, in the same way the U.S. isolation of Cuba may have delayed evolutions in the Caribbean island; every opportunity should be seized to encourage an opening of society in North Korea. Three sets of actors might do so: governments and inter-governmental organisations (IGOs); private sector firms; and civil society. The roles, risks, opportunities, and costs vary, and engagement must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Only governments can sign treaties, impose and lift economic sanctions or change a military posture. Businesses can trade and invest, creating opportunities for contacts and engagement, but unconstrained trade can lead to dangerous technology transfers.

A relevant segment of civil society activities includes educational, cultural, artistic, musical, scientific and sports exchanges. There is no true North Korean civil society activity, but outside non-governmental organisations (NGOs), while they cannot substitute for governments or economic actors, could be important for transmitting ideas and information into the North, which ultimately is necessary to change its thinking, identity and policies.