This week North Korea watchers were treated to a rare display of succession propaganda when it was announced at a Congress of the Korean Workers Party in Pyongyang that Kim Jong Il’s twenty-seven-year-old third son was promoted to Vice Chair of the National Defense Commission and to the rank of General in the Korean Peoples Army. With Kim Jong Il unanimously re-elected as Chairman of the Party and his sister and brother-in-law ensconced as a General and as the other Vice Chair of the National Defense Commission, respectively, the long-rumored lineup for dynastic succession is now officially in place. Suffering from a stroke but still lucid and ambulatory, Kim Jong Il can return to smoking cigarettes and drinking Hennessy Cognac confident in the knowledge that his relatives will serve as regents for the young general with the backing of the Army. The Chinese are breathing a sigh of relief and telling American and South Korean counterparts to stop fretting so much about regime change and instability. The system is stable, according to Beijing, and now the North is in a good position for peaceful accommodation with China’s own model of economic reform and opening and a return to the diplomacy of the six-party talks. Other hopeful observers of North Korea, like former President Jimmy Carter, are also echoing this optimistic prediction. Undiscouraged by his shabby treatment in Pyongyang earlier this month (the former leader of the free world was met only by the equivalent of an undersecretary of state), Carter has announced in the pages of the New York Times that the North really does want to improve relations with the United States.
What can we expect next? Economic reform and good-faith diplomatic negotiations are probably the last thing to look for right now. Recent efforts to print more money and create more “wealth” in preparation for Kim Jeong Un’s succession ended in hyperinflation and rare street protests. The architect of the “reforms” was executed and North Korean economic policy is now reverting to the hardcore centralization of the 1950s. North Korean propaganda has been equally clear that the country will settle for nothing less than being treated as a full nuclear-weapons state. Good relations are possible with the United States, North Koreans tell the outside world, but the fine print explains that Washington will have to negotiate an “arms control” treaty with Pyongyang that ends all economic sanctions, dismantles U.S. forward military presence, ends pressure on human rights, and is concluded by the two parties as sovereign nuclear-weapons counterparts.
The more likely scenario is a dangerous bid for legitimacy by Kim Jeong Un and his regents in which nuclear weapons, external confrontation and internal repression feature ever more prominently—in other words, more of the same. In 2003 North Korean envoys conveyed Pyongyang’s warning to U.S. officials (I was there) that the North would “transfer” its nuclear capability if the United States did not relent. That is probably around the time that North Korean engineers began helping the Syrians build a reactor complex that was later destroyed in September 2007 by an Israeli air raid. More recently, credible details are leaking out of Burma about North Korean efforts to help Than Shwe’s repressive regime develop the same kind of capability. There is probably an even deeper relationship with Iran, though few details have come out other than detection of high level delegations travelling from Pyongyang to Tehran. Kim Jeong Un and his regent will likely continue pushing these horizontal escalation strategies in order to press Washington for concessions and earn hard cash, though they will remain careful not to cross “red lines” such as transferring actual fissile material or weapons. Since Beijing has made a strategic decision to keep the Kim Dynasty afloat rather than risk the disruption of regime collapse and the strategic setback of a democratic unified Korean peninsula on the Chinese border—and since starvation conditions help to keep large parts of the North Korean population docile—Pyongyang is unlikely to fear economic sanctions enough to give up the regime’s only source of deterrence and legitimacy, namely, nuclear weapons.
Well, say the dwindling numbers of hopeful engagers, wouldn’t it therefore be more persuasive to relax sanctions and try to change Pyongyang’s policies through carrots rather than sticks? The answer is clearly no. Targeted financial sanctions and counterproliferation interdiction are no longer primarily about convincing Pyongyang to come back to the table, since there is little prospect that talks will lead to verifiable and irreversible reduction of the North Korean nuclear threat. There is some utility to maintaining a channel to Pyongyang for purposes of escalation control and possible future negotiations, but for now the only reliable means of containing the North Korean threat is to constrict it from the outside. Meanwhile, U.S. officials should join with South Korea in ongoing preparations for the possible collapse of the North. North Korea has become a quasi-medieval Stalinist criminal syndicate that even the most ruthless twenty-seven-year old would have difficulty holding together . . . even if he is now officially the “Great General.”