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The Death of Kim, Jong-il: Grounds for Apprehension

- December 20, 2011

We are delighted to welcome the following guest post from Patrick M. Morgan, the Tierney chair in global peace and conflict studies at the University of California Irvine.  Among others, he is a specialist on deterrence and a founding member of the Council on U.S. Korean Security studies. (Full disclosure: Pat is also my father in law.)


While anticipated, Kim, Jong-il’s death could turn out to be quite problematic.  Efforts at contingency planning have been underway in various places for some time because numerous actors have a strong interest in what happens.  But those actors disagree sharply on what they want to happen, and have therefore done much of their planning without closely consulting each other and in some secrecy.  The ones in North Korea have been particularly restricted in this regard, but those in Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Washington, and even Moscow are certainly not ready to say what is to come next and not ready to say for certain how they will react to whatever comes.

The central issues and problems are clear.  On both the domestic level and internationally, they are roughly the same:

What is to become of North Korea?

Who gets to decide that?

What if there is little or no agreement on those two questions?

The first question requires deciding how important North Korea is, and most analyses have tried to assess how strategically significant it is.  Lots of observers offer views on this but few withstand careful scrutiny.  The most potent factors are North Korea’s historical and symbolic significance, not its strategic value, and those elements are very sensitive politically.  It is historically and symbolically significant, highly so, to the ROK, China, the US, and probably Japan and Russia.  They have invested a great deal in support of or opposition to North Korea over many years, making what will become of it very sensitive in domestic politics, not just international affairs.

Domestically, what happens to North Korea is, of course, of overwhelming  importance to North Koreans themselves; those in power, the elites who have dominated the North for six decades, and those struggling to survive.  It is of similarly innate importance to South Koreans who long to end the long civil war of the Korean people and unify the nation.  And any possible unification would have huge implications for the ROK political system requiring large alterations.  But US concerns about North Korea as a proliferation threat and a human rights disaster inevitably make what happens there a major domestic political issue.  And imagine the Chinese rulers having to abandon a country for which immense sacrifices have been made, pursuant to decisions taken by Mao, at great cost, and celebrated as a huge national victory down to the present.

The second question emerges from the first.  Koreans are likely to disagree intensely about what becomes of North Korea and will be almost unanimous in believing that the decision is properly a matter for Koreans themselves.  They will resent others’ insistence on playing an important role, seeing this as a continuation of the foreign interference that has so grievously harmed Korea since the dawn of the 20 century.  Some of the world’s most potent and influential states – Russia, China, Japan, and the US – will insist on shaping what happens, and for quite a range of reasons.  The UN or a significant number of its members may also insist the UN be similarly involved.  The US is deeply concerned about stabilizing the Northeast Asian and East/Southeast Asian security systems and what happens in North Korea will greatly affect both.  China objects to those security structures and can hardly sit by and see them reinforced by the absorption of North Korea.  Russia would treat its exclusion on this whole matter as a national disgrace.

Hence the third question will grow out of the first two, particularly because there will not be much agreement on them and yet something will have to be done.   This is where the fears arise:

  • That the US will send forces into North Korea to seize its nuclear weapons, facilities, personnel and records;
  • That China will militarily intervene to keep North Korea afloat, sustain a sphere of influence, maintain a buffer zone against the ROK and its allies, exploit the North’s minerals and protect its other investments in the North, etc.
  • That the ROK will intervene out of humanitarian considerations or fear of an onslaught of refugees, or to complete the liberation of the nation.

Any military intervention could be very provocative, as could any failure to do so under some conditions.  The domestic political pressures are apt to be all over the map in terms of what should be done, for these and other actors.  They might even culminate in huge unrest, a civil war, or an international war in or over North Korea

We may be in for a time of considerable uncertainty, perhaps one of great instability.  The result is a paradox.  Many who have long sought either the reform or dissolution of the North will be very uneasy about this happening way too soon, yet those wanting the North to go on indefinitely will well find that a rather daunting prospect if it means only more of the same for years to come.  Everyone has a best possible outcome in mind and good reason to suspect that in the short run the worst may be more likely.