Small Wars Journal

The Death of a Dictator: Danger, Opportunity or Best Timing Possible?

Mon, 12/19/2011 - 1:56pm

When assessing the North Korean succession process the “Korean Hands” will remind us that Kim Jong-il had 21 years to consolidate power and eliminate all political opposition and that the longer that Kim Jong-il lived the greater the chances of a smooth succession from the North Korean perspective.  Everything changed on December 17, 2011 at 8:30 in the morning aboard a train in north Korea when Kim Jong-il died of fatigue and overwork according to the Korean Central News Agency.  The questions are many but can be boiled down to what next for the  Kim Family Regime, the ROK, the US and Northeast Asia?

There are two scenarios that are likely to play out within North Korea.  The first scenario depends on the strength and power of Jang Song-taek who, along with his wife and the late Kim Jong-il’s sister, is the de facto “regent” for the young Kim Jong-un.  Has he been able to help Kim Jong-un establish sufficient legitimacy within the Regime and will they be able to consolidate power?  It is very likely that if Kim has sufficient strength and control of the security apparatus there are very likely arrests and purges taking place even as we try to figure out what is happening. 

The second scenario is that he has not been able to consolidate sufficient power and will be faced with internal threats from other senior members of the regime who are unwilling to allow a 27 year old four star general rule the party and the military.  If there is a power struggle many scenarios can play out ranging from internal chaos, civil war, and “implosion” to an external “explosion” – e.g., spillover of the effects of chaos and civil war into China and the ROK or the worst case: the desperate execution of the regime’s campaign plan to reunify the peninsula as the only means left to ensure survival of the Kim Family Regime.  Finally, regime collapse will occur when there is the loss of the ability of the regime to centrally govern and the loss of control and support of the military and security apparatus.    We have seen cracks in the system like hairline cracks in a dam.  The recently reported alleged defection of eight armed guards is but one indication of such cracks with water slowly dripping from through the regime’s dam - the question is are those cracks repairable or will they cause the dam to crumble and collapse; unleashing such a torrent on the peninsula that will make 1950-53 look like a minor skirmish in terms of scale of potential conflict and devastation.

Either scenario will ensure the continued suffering of 23 million north Korean people and the second scenario will expand the tragedy to the Republic of Korea and its 46 million citizens and significantly affect the other countries in Northeast Asia as well as have global effects.

This should be a wake-up call for the ROK, the US and the international community.  For 61 years the international community has been reacting to the Kim Family Regime.  While the ROK and US have conducted contingency planning for various scenarios in the north, the question that needs to be asked now is whether the ROK-US Alliance and the international community have sufficiently prepared for such contingencies?  Since 1994 when it was assessed that we could accept the political risk of the Agreed Framework because we assumed that the regime would soon collapse, we have written plans but we have not laid the groundwork to actually prepare for collapse.  Here are just two small examples of the preparation not conducted.   We have not executed an aggressive influence campaign targeting the second tier military leadership and the population to prepare them for collapse.  We have not aggressively targeted the external regime mechanisms around the world such as Department 39 – the lifeline of illicit activity that sustained the regime that if cut would cause the regime to strangle on its own incompetence.  If collapse occurs plans may be executed without sufficient preparation.

Serious dangers have been laid out above.  However, what is the likely outcome following the death of one of the world’s worst human rights violators and dictators?

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective, the timing of Kim Jong-il’s death probably came at the most opportune time.  With elections and a leadership transition in the ROK and US and China respectively, it is likely that there is going to be a major “strategic pause” on the Korean Peninsula. 

Just from a US perspective, the Administration is not going to be able to make any effective overtures toward Kim Jong-un in an attempt to influence him.  It will be interesting to see if agreements at the recent meetings in Beijing at which allegedly the US agreed to provide 240,000 tons of food aid and the north agreed it would return to the Six party talks, actually plays out (though there is precedence for agreements to be worked out during leadership transition as the Agreed Framework was completed after the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994).  However, any action by the US Administration is likely to be exploited by the President’s political opponents.  Even such a seemingly simple condolence statement is likely being hotly debated at the White House.  If it is too conciliatory then it will be attacked as being too soft.  If it is too strong then it will have no chance to have a positive influence effect on Kim Jong-un.  The Administration is in a no win situation because even it makes a conciliatory statement the regime will interpret the attacks by the US political opposition as an indication of the real American position toward the north.

The ROK election season was not expected to have north Korea as a dominant issue.  While the political opposition will attack the ruling party on Korean policy, both parties are more likely to focus on economic and social issues.  Neither side will want to make the north the dominant issue.

The Chinese Communist Party also undergoes its leadership transition in 2012.  More than any other country, save the ROK, it wants to maintain the status quo on the Korean Peninsula and does not want the distraction of the leadership transition in the north.  It has its own internal complications with such events as protests in Wuken and other internal domestic political stability issues.

What the US, ROK, and China have in common is that they do not want collapse or war on the Peninsula.  China in particular, will do what is necessary to assist the regime to maintain the status quo.  We are likely to see food and fuel aid and protection from international political pressure on the regime to allow it to conduct its leadership transition in the hopes of preventing implosion or explosion.

This is going to lead to “peninsula paralysis” for the next two years at least.  None of the major powers in the region want collapse or war so we are likely to see overt (China) and tacit (US) support to the north in order to ensure stability on the peninsula.  While some will see the potential danger as outlined above there are others who will see this as an opportunity for regime change (beyond a Kim Family Regime transfer of power).  However, it is unlikely that there has been sufficient preparation made to be able to orchestrate or at least influence such a change and the foundation has not been laid from a military, economic, diplomatic, and influence perspective to either effect change or deal with the potential fall-out.  The bottom line is we are not prepared to exploit the current opportunity; however, the “peninsula paralysis” that we are about to experience may present the window of opportunity to conduct the necessary preparations to deal with the likely collapse of the regime because, as one Korea Hand recently opined, the regime cannot indefinitely defy the laws of economic and political gravity. 

The real opportunity is not to exploit the current events to cause a regime change for which no one is prepared, but to exploit the opportunity over the next two or more years to conduct the effective preparations necessary to deal with regime collapse on terms that the ROK and US desire.  Hasty and ill-advised calls for regime collapse are made only by those who do not understand the nature of the regime and the likely scenarios that will emanate from the final collapse of the Kim Family Regime.  They are made by those who do not understand the preparation that is necessary to mitigate the fallout from regime collapse.  At this time of potential crisis it is time to take a longer view to allow us to be proactive rather than reactive.   The peninsula is likely to weather this storm for a period of time.  But this should be the wake-up call that drives the ROK-US alliance to make the realistic preparations to deal with the only outcome on the Korean Peninsula that is necessary for both denuclearization and ultimate regional stability – the end of the Kim Family Regime and the solution to the lingering “Korea Question” that was supposed to be solved following the 1953 Armistice.

The opinions expressed in this paper are the author's alone