The death of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Il, opens a new era in East Asia. He was the absolute ruler of North Korea, appointed by the charismatic founder of the totalitarian society who most citizens viewed as a God. For all the questions about his leadership, Kim Jong Il could always rely on the fact that his father, also the father of the country, said he should rule. He had inherited legitimacy.
If history is any guide, we know that legitimacy is not easily inherited for a third generation, more distant from the charisma of the founding moment. We also know that a large proportion of the North Korean people have lived near starvation for more than a decade. Their capacity to embrace a new savior in Kim’s very young, inexperienced, and largely unknown son, Kim Jong Eun, is questionable.
North Korea seems ripe for a period of turmoil in leadership and society at large. South Korea, Japan, and China should expect more refugee movements, and perhaps some uncoordinated and provocative North Korean military maneuvers. Military leaders in Pyongyang will want to show strength as they jockey for power after Kim.
What should the United States and its allies do? How should we react? There are limitations to external leverage in North Korea, but there is also space for important foreign influence during this time of transition:
1. Show Military Strength without Provocation: South Korea, Japan, and the United States must do everything they can to discourage military adventurism by a faction in North Korea during the period of uncertainty. This means keeping forces on alert and at full strength to repulse any offensive or probing action. This also means remaining clearly in a defensive posture, with a firm statement that we do not seek a military clash. There will be unrest, and perhaps significant violence, in North Korea. It must remain contained in North Korea.
2. Engage China: Beijing is Pyongyang’s only friend, and even that relationship has frayed in recent years. The United States must work closely to assess Chinese aims, anticipate Chinese moves, and persuade China to act in ways that do not simply reinforce a dictatorship on the old model. Washington and Beijing must begin an intense dialogue about what stable change in North Korea should look like, and the two capitals must work toward that end. Support for reforms in North Korea that approximate the economic and political openings of China in the 1980s, under Deng Xiaoping, are a good place to start. The South Koreans would embrace that vision as well.
3. Speak to the North Koreans: North Korea is a closed society, but this period of transition will create some new openings. The United States and its allies must prepare to take advantage of opportunities for direct communications with people on the ground. Radio, video, and even air-dropped leaflets should convey a simple message: “We want peace with North Korea and we want to help improve the lives of the people in your country. Work with us.” In the short term, we should encourage openness, not immediate democracy. We should advocate economic assistance, not immediate capitalism.
The history of post-authoritarian transitions in other societies warns against excessive expectations. North Korea’s totalitarianism and its foreign aggressiveness will not die quickly with Kim Jong Il. North Korea will enter a period of uncertainty that might last for months and years. The United States and its allies must watch closely, they must try to exert cautious influence, and they must prepare to combine firmness with an open hand.
This is the time to offer mutually beneficial partnership. This is the time to embrace change, even as we do not control the outcomes. Instead of simple slogans, American foreign policy requires sophisticated and consistent diplomacy. Let’s hope that we can rise to the occasion.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.