South Korea's Options

Although there been considerable agitation among South Korea’s extreme right wing on the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak to start a nuclear development program or seek to provoke the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang, it is unrealistic in the wake of the death of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il last Saturday to believe the Lee government would or should do either one.

It is often forgotten that there was a time when everyone took it for granted that North Korea would collapse. Many pundits have spent the past several years writing obituaries for the Kim dynasty. In 1994, the sudden death of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea, was enough to reinforce their belief that the regime would be sooner or later replaced. Their analyses have been proven wrong for 17 years, since Kim Jong-il muddled through despite terrible famine and government mismanagement.

However, in the wake of Kim’s abrupt death, the government of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has to now be considering how it can capitalize on the situation. There was likely sharp internal ideological warfare, for instance, over whether the government should send North Korea its condolences. The Lee government has expressed sympathy to the people of North Korea over the death of Kim but has reportedly decided not to send an official condolence delegation. It is said to be allowing the families of the late former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and former Hyundai Group chairman Chung Mong-hun to pay condolence visits to the North since Pyongyang sent delegations to Seoul when Kim and Chung died, according to the unification minister.

Aside from that the government has to be considering how to maximize the opportunities for the Grand National Party, behind in the polls and facing general elections next April.

Given that the Lee government is emphasizing the need for stability on the Korean peninsula in the post-Kim Jong-il era, it is likely that Seoul will indeed express its deepest condolences in one way or another. With Jong-Il now out of the way, for the Lee government the already-improving relationship between the South and the North could be regarded as a way to pave a new way for breaking current inter-Korean relations out of their cul-de-sac.

Lee and his aides may find it an attractive option to hold a summit meeting before leaving office, since they experienced how big the political and economic impact was in the wake of the inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007. Although North Korea also recently expressed its willingness to hold it to ‘The Elders,’ a group of former state leaders and renowned figures, the fledgling government of Jong-Il’s son Kim Jong-Un, backed by a military junta, has to be cautious about making any moves now until the leadership situation solidifies itself.

Second, the Lee government and the ruling GNP both have to be taking into consideration the coming domestic general elections. There have been ominous signs. In November, an independent candidate named Park Won-soon won the Seoul mayoralty election, drubbing the GNP, with the party’s harsh North Korean rhetoric a factor in the race. The April elections will decide the future of the government, with anticipated legislative losses expected to produce a lame-duck presidency. To this end, that makes a condolence letter more likely in an effort to demonstrate flexibility. That decision, however, can be expected to anger the fundamentalist right-wingers who are hostile toward the communist regime.

It also must be remembered that US and North Korean officials recently met in Beijing to discuss the modalities of American aid to the North, leading to the resumption of the stalled six-party talks. The coming power transitions in China, where both supreme leader Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are to step down in 2012, and the US, where President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party face a difficult election, will not permit South Korea to ‘overact’ in dealing with an unstable North Korea.

The View Across the DMZ

So what does the Blue House face across the demilitarized zone? South Korean intelligence institutions believe it might be difficult to see an orderly succession to any of Kim’s sons---Jong-nam, Jong-cheol or Jong-un—although without offering detailed explanations. While the armed forces that stayed loyal to the late Kim will remain willing to carry out his posthumous orders, the feeling is that Jong-un’s chances of ruling very deep into 2012 are relatively bleak, let alone for the next decade.

Very little is known about the regime, and even less is known about Jong-un. It is safe to say, however, that military hard-liners are dominating all major policies. To that end, some have predicted the rise of a citizen willing to communicate by word of mouth to challenge the survival of the regime.

Many have found clever ways to evade state censorship, and a few have become bolder in challenging the government. The possibility can’t be ruled out that these oral messengers could emerge as a potential base of democratization, unless the North pushes the peninsula to a dangerous tipping point.

There is no guarantee that their efforts will continue if the regime starts cracking down on the ‘people’s betrayers.’ Plus the general consensus is that the unprecedented power succession through the third-generation of a unique modern tyranny would face some troubles, making this qualitatively different from anything that had performed before.

Certainly the power elite are seeking to thoroughly block the spread of suspected information, people, money and goods in the name of juche, the self-reliance ideology invented by Jong-Un’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, the country’s founder. But despite that is possible to talk to people across the DMZ by cell phones from Seoul. North Korean defectors living in the South can send impressive photos of prosperous South Korean societies to their relatives in the North via mobile phone.

The cross-border flow of communications will certainly weaken the regime, albeit not so powerful to topple it. That said, the regime finds it impossible lock its poverty-stricken citizens away forever.

There is no way of knowing exactly what will happen in a North Korea led by Jong-un. Inclusion of a regime-change scenario in the classified North Korea contingency plan is, however, sure to rankle cronies on the flank of his political and military base.

Seoul and Washington need to show a smart solution of engagement based on a diplomacy-is-better-than-sanctions strategy. Seoul and Washington both need to keep their hawks’ wings clipped while the North shakes out the issues created by the death. Tolerance should apply to North Korea for the near future instead of letting intelligence analysts prepare for the collapse of the uncertain regime, only if they believe that the next years may prove to be a decisive turning point in Korean history.