Facing North Korea's Future

How much disarray there is in Pyongyang to naming Kim Jong-il's youngest son Kim Jong-un as North Korea's new leader remains to be seen. In early October, Jong-un's elder brother Kim Jong-nam, sensing that he was on the wrong side of North Korean court politics by staying abroad for several years, openly expressed opposition to the emergence of Jong-un, his younger half-brother as the north's leader.

Jong-nam openly said in an interview with Japan's TV Asahi that he opposes the hereditary transfer of power to a third generation of the family. The elder sibling, of course was famously dismissed as his father's successor in 2001 after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a false passport, reportedly so that he could visit Disneyland. Jong-nam, who apparently lives in Macau, did say that while he opposes the succession, it should still be accepted. Nonetheless, Kim Jong-il in effect has bequeathed his country to a 27-year-old. That leaves a lot of questions. How does North Korea's hard-bitten military view having a thoroughly untested youth for commander-in-chief?

Certainly the Kim regime is seeking to copper its bets by making a considerable show of what appears to be China's approval of the scheduled succession of Jong-un, who has been given the title of the Young General. The regime reportedly invited a group of foreign journalists to Pyongyang to publicize Jong-un's appearance at the 65th founding anniversary on Oct. 10 of the ruling Worker's Party, which his grandfather, the Great Leader – Kim Il-sung, used as his vehicle for power.

The events were intended to demonstrate that Pyongyang is in lockstep with Beijing. Zhou Yongkang, chief of China's Central Political and Legislative Committee, appeared with a large delegation at a luncheon hosted by Kim Jong-Il and reviewed a military parade along with the Kims. According to the North's propaganda machine, Zhou "warmly congratulated" Kim Jong-il for a successful conference and for his reelection as general secretary of the Worker's Party.

That means China appears to have passed over the phenomenon of a 27-year-old's unusual succession track up the military and party hierarchy. China is believed to have a critical sense of urgency over unity in Pyongyang in the wake of Jong-il's stroke, which occurred in August of 2008. He is said to have undergone surgery performed with the help of a team of five Chinese doctors dispatched from China, sources inside China said. At the 65th anniversary ceremony, he appeared weak and his face was expressionless, witnesses said.

So a newly organized leadership in North Korea may well cooperate with the next leadership of China, which is all but certain to be led by Xi Jinping, China's vice president, beginning in 2012. Obviously, in seeking to preserve the balance of power in Northeast Asia, China prefers the status-quo-based stability in North Korea over the possibility of a pro-US, unified Korean government on the peninsula.

That's why China is tightening the screws further on the North Korean refugees sneaking into its borders, for fear – founded more on the possibility of a violent and unpredictable power struggle than on any confidence in its own prescriptive power – of the brittle North's collapse. China does not believe that the North's nuclear weapons threaten its long-term interests and so it has never made a fundamental decision to turn its back on the north's brinkmanship.

Whether the North Korean military was involved in the sinking of the Cheonan corvette remains unclear, despite findings by an international commission that a North Korean torpedo did the job. The Chinese certainly think the north did it, and they appear to have accepted it.

This is unsurprising. Arguing for continued close engagement with the Kim regime, China will likely tell what it saw and heard in its own way. Indeed there are lots of analytical papers about the potential for the North's "Sinicization." At least on matters of the peninsula, China has the upper hand and knows better how to take advantage of a crisis to grab an opportunity amid the vortex of political uncertainty than any other regional power, including the US, which estimates that a life-and-death succession battle in one of the world's most secretive countries could complicate nuclear negotiations. That said, while Beijing concentrating on the power succession, Washington focused on the future trajectory of nuclear negotiations.

Obviously the US and China think in different directions over the Pyongyang regime. Nonetheless, it makes sense for both Washington and Beijing to intervene to try to keep peace and stability on the peninsula. It makes sense for the two to try to reduce the degree of uncertainty emanating from the North. Certainly the sad reality is that in these circumstances, neither can prevent the North from developing nuclear weapons. A growing number of North Korea analysts have given up on the idea that the North might be persuaded to voluntarily abandon its nukes, voicing frustrating skepticism about the attitudes of China. Washington also appears reluctant to issue diplomatic ultimatums to Pyongyang, whereas Beijing shows restraint for some wise reasons: North Korea is a nuclear-armed country and a coercive diplomacy would only inflame its nationalism.

Deterring the North's dangerous behavior is a near-impossible task, unless the worldview of North Koreans, in particular that of the leaders, changes. The Stalinist regime has deliberately taken advantage of people's justified fear of reform and openness based on democracy and capitalism so as to push for excessive anti-liberalism policies in the name of juche sasang – self-reliance ideology. The dead-on-arrival juche sasang is deeply rooted in the internalized political culture of North Koreans, the toxic dogma of a suffocating poverty-stricken people, no matter how irrational.

Lots of North Koreans are believed to be religiously motivated fanatics who see juche sasang as above politics and divinely sanctioned. It is thus no wonder that all the systems in the North are blinking red. The North Korean leadership's obsession with a wrongly-guided ideology needs to end, but ending it puts the leadership into the position of humiliating itself by abandoning decades of an untenable dogma.

Obviously the country that can do more than any other to change the leadership's mindset is China. The US and South Korea must attempt to persuade Beijing to keep the pressure on North Korea. North Korea is the region's most ambiguous contemporary regime. The ailing Kim Jong-il's era is almost over and it will be very difficult to have a stable and secure leadership structure if Jong-il dies earlier than people expect because of the Young General's inexperience.

The tyrant's chapter is not yet completely closed but he and Jong-un both are the unreliable guardians of North Korea's long-term future. North Korea's economy already sags under heavy debt, endless sanctions, and a poor investment climate. Unfortunately, they can't set the kind of momentum for change in motion. At the same time, conservative intellectuals on the Lee Myung-bak foreign policy team in Seoul recommend a more enhanced strategic shift toward the US to counter not only the presence of North Korean nuclear weapons program, a direct threat to South Korea, but the menace of a rising China as well.

Thus, instead of repeating the mantra that the US and South Korea should cooperate proactively in the possible fall of the regime in the North, more strategic questions should be asked. Such as, after the post-Kim regime, can South Korea-US and China, which are involved in a fierce game of power-sharing on the peninsula, start to set down their thoughts with some cogency and logic in order to converge an almost six-decade division status after the 1950-53 Korean War into a unified Korea? But still I wonder: Who will raise this first?

Byong-Chul Lee is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.