Will Kim Jong-un Exploit U.S. and South Korean Elections?

Participants in the Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea. Flickr/@fljckr

America's strategic influence is at stake.

Over the next two years, the tenuous status quo on the Korean Peninsula, never far from chaos, will be acutely challenged by the convergence of democratic transitions in the United States and South Korea, coupled with the imminence of North Korea’s deployment of nuclear-tipped missiles. How an emboldened Kim Jong-un exploits these near-term trends could plunge the Korean Peninsula into war or push it to the precipice of peace.

At present, a rising sense of crisis is supplanting a policy of strategic patience in Washington and Seoul. A Council on Foreign Relations Task Force report warns that the next U.S. administration cannot afford to put North Korea on the back burner, and it calls for sharper pressure mixed with renewed diplomacy. Another assessment, even more keen on diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, is about to emerge from a triumvirate of research institutions, including Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Additional voices are urging Seoul and Washington to initiate new talks with North Korea.

Yet, at the moment when calls for opening diplomatic channels with North Korea abound, South Korean policy circles seem filled with foreboding and stern resignation. At least based on meetings I engaged in with officials and leading scholars this past week in Seoul, the main attitude is the need to remain steadfast with this current phase of pressure and sanctions, a phase that started in response to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January. Pressure on Pyongyang is not unusual, but there has been loose talk of preempting North Korea. South Korean defense minister Han Min-koo testified recently that Seoul could unleash a special unit to assassinate the North Korean dictator should Seoul feel under immediate threat of attack.

Sensing outside division and always in fear of a loss of internal control, Kim’s regime has threatened to wipe Seoul and the U.S. territory of Guam off the map. North Korea could well conduct a sixth nuclear test (the third this year) before the U.S. election. But even more worrisome are North Korea’s potential probes, missteps and miscalculations that might arise over the next couple of years during this confluence of democratic transition and nuclear deployment that together create a dangerous Korean vortex.

This essay seeks to disentangle this swirling mass of political and nuclear issues, describe the mostly unsavory economic, diplomatic and military policy options facing decisionmakers, and offer strategic guidance for the incoming U.S. administration. How resolutely and wisely decisionmakers in Washington and Seoul deal with this phase of potential upheaval will also determine the future of the alliance and go a long way to shaping America’s strategic influence in Northeast Asia.

Political Transitions and Nuclear Imminence Heighten Risk

President Barack Obama is counting down his final days in office, hoping to prevent any bad precedents from being set—such as conflict or nuclear deployments in North Korea—during the short duration of his tenure. After that, however, it will take six to nine months for a new administration to fully install most of its senior political appointees. Thus, for the next year, America’s untidy democratic transition process will create a window of opportunity for North Korea to act up.

September 2017 is also just about the time when South Korea’s election choices will clarify. The next Korean administration after President Park Geun-hye’s ends in early 2018, may well be a more progressive government. Hence, the United States may have to switch from working with an ally focused on zero tolerance for provocation to an ally more intent on a “sunshine policy” of diplomatic and economic engagement.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is likely to seek the nomination of the ruling conservative Saenuri Party. Ban is known for being even-tempered and is likely to be more focused on multilateral diplomacy than is President Park. Or course, in part because of Ban’s less muscular approach to security, there is bound to be a competitive contest within the conservative party.

The notion of diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang will figure even larger in the policy pronouncements of the two major opposition parties. Both the liberal Minjoo Party of Korea, which overtook the Saenuri Party with the most seats in the National Assembly this past spring, and the centrist People’s Party are likely to call for elevating diplomacy over ever-tighter sanctions. The December 2017 election in South Korea and the March 2018 inauguration of the next leader in the Blue House will almost certainly bring forth a new plan for dealing with Pyongyang. Thus, the current, precarious phase of political transitions will carry through the early months of President Park’s successor, roughly two years from now.