North Korea: Planning for After the Kims

Kongdan Oh
Kongdan Oh Former Brookings Expert, Asian Specialist - Institute for Defense Analysis

October 29, 2008

North Korea is neither a socialist nor a communist country. It is a dynastic feudal society that has been controlled by two men since its founding 60 years ago.

On its 60th anniversary, Kim Jong Il, the reigning leader, was not on the podium to review the military parade demonstrating the country’s “military-first politics.” Rumors of a serious illness spread like wildfire, and now the Japanese foreign minister is reporting that Kim is probably hospitalized but still capable of making decisions.

Whatever Kim’s condition, a serious assessment of the health of the regime must begin now. After six decades of self-imposed isolation, economic destruction and political oppression by the Kims, North Korean society is as sick as its leader.

Ordinary people and elites alike suffer from a phobia of foreigners, a failure to appreciate North Korea’s standing in the world and lack of enthusiasm to reform the country’s political and economic institutions.

Over the past 14 years, the United States has invested considerable effort in trying to pry nuclear materials out of Kim’s hands. His nuclear program is temporarily shut down, but it is probably too late for Washington to remove or even receive an accounting for the nuclear materials that North Korea has developed over the last two decades.

But it is not too late to begin preparing for the eventual collapse of the Kim regime. The next U.S. president will need to give concerted attention to the following four issues:

The succession. Regardless of how well Kim recovers, he is unlikely to regain the vigor of his former days. Kim has three sons, and it is likely that one of them will become at least the figurehead of a new regime, supported and protected by a group of senior officials from the army and the party.

The next leader is not likely to be as good as Kim Jong Il when it comes to manipulating those around him. All three of his sons have received some of their education in Europe and so have been exposed to Western life. The successor will do his best to retain the autocratic character of the current regime, but as an old Korean saying goes, “The wealth of a family doesn’t last three generations.”

The nuclear issue. North Korea has used its nuclear card to sustain global attention and make money as well. Hard-core military officers and members of the party elite will do their best to retain the value of their nuclear program, but at some point – maybe already – disagreements between globalists and xenophobic nationalists will surface about whether the program should be sacrificed in return for substantial foreign aid and political acceptance.

We cannot predict what decisions the elites will make, but it is unlikely that they will be as skillful in using the nuclear card as Kim has been.

The effect that a change in regime will have on North Korea’s domestic order. Once the news is out that Kim Jong Il is gone, widespread social agitation is likely to arise from North Korea’s hungry and abused citizens – not in the form of revolution or large-scale protests, but in a restless movement of the people seeking better economic conditions. The restlessness will raise questions in the elites about how to maintain order and protect their privileged position.

Finally, there is the question of how a change in the North Korean regime will affect the delicate politics of northeast Asia.

South Korea has been giving the Kim regime breathing space to find its own way into the international community, and has provided economic investment to jump-start the North Korean economy.

Japan has turned a cold shoulder to Pyongyang because of its nuclear program and the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea.

China has played a balancing act between the two Koreas by strengthening its economic ties with the South while providing economic aid and political support to the North.

Russia, which shares a short border with North Korea, has few resources to devote to the region but maintains a diplomatic presence at the Six-Party negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program.

The United States has been the party most interested in ending North Korea’s nuclear program, and has contributed over a billion dollars in North Korean aid and economic assistance since the mid-1990s. Although the United States is thousands of miles away from the Korean peninsula, policies made in Washington may be the most important determinant in what course North Korea takes after Kim Jong Il.

After Kim, the Korean people will begin to think seriously about reunification. Many Koreans today still believe that the United States played a key role in cutting the Korean peninsula in half. When the opportunity for reunification comes, Americans will need to dispel any lingering myth that they want Korea to remain weak and divided.

Handled properly, a change of regime in North Korea can open the way for a bloodless end to the cold war on the Korean peninsula and build the foundation of a democratic and unified Korea that will influence the other countries of Northeast Asia.