Steady as She Goes on North Korea


Steady as She Goes on North Korea

Oct 21st, 2010 10 min read
Bruce Klingner

Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia

Bruce Klingner specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs as the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has finally pulled the curtain back and revealed his heir apparent. After years of speculation, Kim's third son Kim Jong-eun was all but officially positioned as the next North Korean leader. Jong-eun had never been mentioned in the North Korean media but, at the September 28 meeting of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP), he was elevated to four-star general and named a member of the party central committee, and vice chairman of the KWP's Central Military Commission.

The son must now consolidate his power behind the scenes to prevent challenges to the succession. The most critical factor determining the success of the leadership transition will be Kim Jong-il's health. The longer the elder Kim lives, the more likely the power transfer will be successful.

Despite speculation that Jong-eun's education in Switzerland might make him more inclined toward economic reform or a less belligerent foreign policy, there is no evidence to support such wishful thinking. Nor should Washington or Seoul be expected to alter their policies toward North Korea until Pyongyang modifies its behavior and provides tangible evidence that it is willing to resume denuclearization.

The United States and South Korea should continue their shared two-track policy of applying pressure and highly conditional engagement. They should reject any advice to return to the failed policy of providing concessions in return for illusory progress in six-party talks.

Laying the foundation for succession
Jong-eun's elevation to general establishes him as a military leader so North Korea can continue its songun (military first) policy. Some analysts speculate Jong-eun's higher-than-expected titles reflect a need to accelerate succession because of Kim Jong-il's failing health. But Jong-il appeared relatively healthy during the conference in late September and at the October 10 military parade.

Notably, North Korea stopped short of formally designating Jong-eun as its next leader. The positions he received, though exalted, do not put him above other current members of the inner circle, nor did Jong-il abdicate any of his positions of power. He was renominated to all of his senior positions as general secretary of the KWP, chairman of the party's politburo, and head of the all-powerful National Defense Commission (NDC).

Jong-eun will undoubtedly amass additional titles, most notably on the politburo of the KWP and the NDC. He is certainly on track to become the next leader but is not there yet. The succession will be a multi-stage process rather than a singular transfer of power.

The leadership will now engage in a glorification campaign to burnish Jong-eun's credentials and justify turning over the keys of the kingdom to such a young heir. That process already has begun. Shortly after the party conference, he accompanied his father to a military firepower demonstration and was on the dais to review the massive military parade on October 10 to celebrate the anniversary of the KWP.

Other personnel announcements confirm North Korea's intent to build its future leadership around the Kim family. Kim Jong-il's sister Kim Kyong-hui was also promoted to four-star general and a member of the KWP's politburo. Her husband, Chang Sang-taek, previously promoted to vice chairman of the NDC, was named an alternate member of the KWP central committee. Other close associates of the Kim family were given senior positions, ensuring they all will serve as protectors for Jong-eun's succession.

Leveling out the government structure
The party convention also restored some authority to the KWP after years of declining influence vis-a-vis the military. Last year, Kim Jong-il consolidated national power into an even more powerful NDC. Pyongyang amended its constitution to expand the NDC's authority from overseeing military and security matters to overseeing the entire government.

The amendment designated the NDC chairman as supreme leader of North Korea, responsible for overseeing the national economy, appointing and dismissing major military figures, and wielding the authority to declare a state of emergency or war. It was assumed that Kim had concentrated all power in the NDC to create a power base that would allow a quick, orderly and legal transfer of authority to Jong-eun.

Kim Jong-il may have reinvigorated the party in order to divide government power and reduce the military's ability to resist Jong-eun as the next leader. Bestowing Kim Jong-eun with senior military and party titles gives him a strong power base in both camps as well as greater legitimacy as successor than simply being the son and grandson of North Korea's leaders.

Establishing close ties between the party and the military will create cooperation between the two power centers. Having members of the NDC on the KWP politburo will reduce frictions and aid continuing the songun policy.

Building a foundation on sand?
North Korea can expect an orderly transfer of power if Kim Jong-il can survive long enough to supervise the succession for some time. Even if Kim were ill but still functioning, he could keep potential rivals at bay until his son gained sufficient standing on his own.

The younger Kim needs substantial time, though. He is only in his late 20s and won't have the decades of preparation that Jong-il had before taking over from his father. At this point, Jong-eun lacks the experience, gravitas, legitimacy, and power to run the government on his own. He is far weaker than Kim Jong-il was at this stage in his career and has had far less time to develop expertise, an independent power base, or a cult of personality.

There are no signs of resistance to the succession, but even Jong-il, who ran the country for several years before his Kim Il-sung's death, needed several years to consolidate his power after assuming office.

The North Korean elite, which has a vested interest in maintaining the current system, will assess Jong-eun's ability to protect its interests. The elite will balance a shared sense of external threat against fear of domestic instability from an inexperienced leader. If senior leaders decide Jong-eun's shortcomings merit contesting the succession, they could mount outright opposition or usurp power and leave him as a mere figurehead.

New leader, old policies
Although some hope that the Western-educated Kim Jong-eun will soften North Korean policy, there is no indication that he will be any less hardline or belligerent than his father. Jong-eun's rule will be legitimized by maintaining Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il's nationalist and military-based policies.

Having less of a power base than his father, Jong-eun will be even more reliant on support from senior party and military leaders who are overwhelmingly nationalist and resistant to change they fear could risk regime instability. This process may already have begun. Just as his father was believed to be responsible for terrorist attacks on South Korean in 1983 and 1987 when he was heir apparent, Jong-eun is reported to have been responsible for the attack in March on the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan.

Thus, the nature of the North Korean regime and its objectives will not change. Nor will Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons. It may employ different tactics and its tone of engagement may vary some, but its principles will remain constant.

US policy unaffected
The succession announcement should have no impact on United States or South Korean policy towards North Korea. Washington should continue to base its policy on achieving national interests and judging the rhetoric and actions of North Korea rather than adjusting the strategy because of new leadership. Since there has been no change in North Korean behavior or actions, there is no need to alter US policy.

The United States should continue to insist on tangible evidence that North Korean intends to resume its denuclearization commitments and address Seoul's concerns about the Cheonan attack before we agree to resume the six-party talks.

The latter precondition is particularly important. Seoul is a critical ally of the United States. The two countries share common viewpoints, objectives, and a desire to strengthen their relationship. As a senior South Korean official told this correspondent in Seoul, “it is impossible to underestimate the importance of the US-South Korea relationship”.

For now, South Korea remains confident that the US understands the centrality of South-North relations to the six-party talks and won't get ahead of Seoul in approaching Pyongyang. South Korea senses no policy daylight between itself and Washington and no fear that the Barack Obama administration will go soft on North Korea, and it is in the US's interests to keep it that way.

Contrary to recent media speculation, the Obama administration has not signaled any intention to abandon its policy of pressure on North Korea. Indeed, after the administration's early engagement overtures were so soundly rejected by Pyongyang, Obama reversed his intended policy and adopted a more hard-line approach toward North Korea than did president George W Bush during his second term.

There is little optimism or enthusiasm within the Obama administration for reaching out to North Korea. White House officials privately comment that North Korea can expect the pressure to continue and, indeed, increase if it doesn't alter its behavior.

Nor is there much outside pressure on the administration to go soft on North Korea. The vast majority of outside experts, congress, and pundits were belatedly convinced by North Korea's provocations in 2009-10 that Pyongyang had not spent 40 years, billions of dollars, and countless man-years of effort - not to mention international ostracism and sanctions - to develop nuclear weapons as a "bargaining chip".

It is certainly notable, however, that Obama's tough policies - which sound remarkably like those of Bush's first term, have avoided the harsh criticism by the media and Democratic legislators that Bush endured.

Seoul also staying the course
South Korea also sees no need to alter its policy. Although some in the South Korean government advocate sending an envoy to North Korea, the senior leadership has no interest in re-engaging Pyongyang without a significant shift in the North's behavior. The Lee Myung-bak administration sees the need to continue pressure tactics for the next six to 12 months.

Nor does the Lee government face significant domestic or legislative pressure to alter its policy since South Korea does not have another election (including local elections and legislative by-elections) until 2012. Politicians are thus less likely to posture for altering Seoul's approach to Pyongyang.

The Cheonan sinking in March affirmed public perception that North Korea has no interest in constructive dialogue. The South Korean populace also soured on China for refusing to accept the multilateral task force evidence that North Korea was responsible for the attack.

Indeed, South Koreans have become increasingly nervous over China's intentions after its increasingly belligerent actions in the West Sea, South China Sea, and Senakakus. When Chinese six-party talks negotiator Wu Dawei attempted to resurrect the nuclear negotiations without Pyongyang meeting the preconditions, he found himself firmly rebuffed by Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.

Dialogue does not mean policy change
The Obama and Lee administrations are pursuing a two-track policy of pressure and highly conditional engagement. But North Korea's belligerence has caused the latter policy tool to atrophy. Although it is premature to resume negotiations, a total lack of contact with Pyongyang is also not productive. For this reason, the Obama administration may be amenable to another trip to North Korea by US special representative for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth to assess the situation.

But willingness to hold a meeting does not and should not imply a policy change. The fact that Washington or Seoul considering sending an envoy is perceived as a major policy change shows Obama is falling into the same trap as Bush, equating talking with victory.

Seoul remains cautious, perceiving a cost to simply entering into negotiations since it unleashes influences and forces that can be inimical to allied objectives. North Korea is well skilled in using negotiations to parry international pressure. As a senior South Korean put it, "Diplomacy can be very useful to solve problems. It can also be useful to not solve problems."

Time to go beyond half-hearted measures
The two most critical aspects of policy toward North Korea are pressure and patience. Pyongyang has always demanded change of others and Washington and Seoul repeatedly have acquiesced. Now, the United States and South Korea have taken this page from the North Korean playbook and insisted that now Pyongyang must change, otherwise its future remains bleak.

This is no time to reduce the pressure. Washington and Seoul should continue their policies but implement additional measures to make sanctions more effective. Although the Obama administration's recent executive order against North Korean illegal activities was a good strategy, it was weakly implemented.

The United States should drop its reluctance to target non-North Korean entities in violation of United Nations resolutions and international law. It should identify and target foreign governments, businesses, banks, and individuals who aid North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and its illicit activities such as counterfeiting and drug smuggling.

Washington should take the lead and call on other nations to follow suit. Increased international pressure could impede North Korea's ability to import the components and materials needed for its nuclear weapon program and curb its destabilizing proliferation activities. More aggressively implementing UN resolutions would also decisively signal there is a cost to abhorrent behavior.

For its part, Seoul should augment its post-Cheonan punitive economic measures against North Korea and close the Kaesong economic zone, a joint South-North Korea business venture. The Lee Myung-bak administration has been reluctant to do so since a number of South Korean businesses rely on the venture to stay afloat, and keeping it open tells Pyongyang that it can conduct acts of war and terrorism without significant penalty.

The United States and its allies should also make clear to China that it must increase pressure on North Korea prior to Washington agreeing to return to six-party talks. Beijing's refusal to confront North Korea over its multiple transgressions has undermined the nuclear negotiations and the UN resolutions.

Uncertainty in North Korea's future
Strengthening sanctions on North Korea demonstrates to Pyongyang that there is a cost for violating UN resolutions and abandoning the six-party talks. The regime is particularly vulnerable now as it goes through the succession process, a deteriorating economic situation, and internal problems.

The North Korean leadership likely fears the new dynamics that could trigger unpredictable and unforeseen changes in the country. Thus, it is important to hold out the prospects of dialogue, to offer the possibility of a different future available if the regime moderates its behavior and resumes its denuclearization commitments. After repeatedly hitting one end of the donkey with a stick, it is useful to periodically check in with the other end to see if the donkey has changed his mind.

Bruce Klingner is a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

First appeared in Asia Times