North Korea's brazen second nuclear test has once again caused instability within Northeast Asia and created yet another crisis for the new Obama administration. This test-like North Korea's missile test two months ago-was most likely conducted as much for domestic reasons as it was to send a message to the United States.
Pyongyang's latest provocative act-announcing that it will not abide by the 1953 armistice-is further proof that the regime is focused inwardly, and not on the outside world. Although skirmishes in the Yellow Sea are a likely result, few observers think that North Korea has any real intention of starting a general war. However, the bellicose nature of the recent North Korean rhetoric and actions-and in particular, the accelerated and disproportionate nature of the provocations-point to a regime that is no longer calibrating its actions as part of an overall strategy for dealing with the outside world.
With Kim Jong-il obviously physically weakened, this week's developments reveal an intensifying internal struggle that may get worse before it gets better. The regime is unstable because Kim has no clear successor. The "Dear Leader" himself was announced as his father's successor twenty years before he actually took office, giving him time to prepare for the role and public legitimacy. He was able to build support among important internal constituencies, and create an aura of inevitability that led North Koreans to accept him as their next ruler.
Kim's poor health over the past year has surely intensified the internal maneuvering over the succession, and North Korean elites are almost surely engaged in "palace politics" as they attempt to position themselves to gain power and protect their future interests. That Kim Jong-il has not yet anointed an heir implies that no candidate has yet built enough factional support to become the clear choice.
The logical result of this uncertainty is a lack of both long-term planning and strategic vision among Pyongyang's governing class, as well as an incentive for nationalistic and assertive acts, as various factions attempt to prove their loyalty to the Kim family and the North Korean regime.
The unfortunate fact is that if North Korean elites are competing with each other to prove loyalty to the Kim regime in the face of an uncertain leadership succession, we can also expect less external ability to affect the regime.
The Obama administration has responded properly by underreacting rather than overreacting. Too much bellicose rhetoric from the United States would only benefit hard-liners in Pyongyang, who use the American response to justify their actions. Yet the unfortunate reality is that the range of policy options available to the White House and other governments in the region is quite narrow to begin with. Few countries wish to risk military action to implement regime change in North Korea, because the potential casualties and economic damage are staggering. But no country is willing to simply live with a nuclear North Korea either. As a result, the Obama administration, like China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, is left to choose between mild economic sanctions, rhetorical pressure and perhaps some form of quiet diplomacy.
If North Korea can quickly resolve its succession crisis, the regime might survive well into the future. On the other hand, we may be seeing the beginning of an internal collapse of the Kim dynasty, and governments around the region might do well to begin reviewing their contingency plans for how to deal with the chaos that such a collapse would surely bring.
David C. Kang is the director of the Korea Studies Institute and a professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California.