[Outlook]What’s next after Kim Jong-il

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[Outlook]What’s next after Kim Jong-il

Since Kim Jong-il’s health has declined, countless analyses about what will happen and suggestions for government policy have been made.

If something serious happens to Kim, who will take power? Would it mean a major setback for the denuclearization process, which has come to its last phase? Should South Korea’s policy for coexistence and mutual prosperity be adjusted? Will Korea’s international diplomacy related to North Korea and the Korean Peninsula shrink or increase? A variety of answers to these questions are all worth hearing.

But the most useful clue comes from Pyongyang: the statement that it is suspending the disablement of nuclear facilities, released by North Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Aug. 26. The North condemned the United States for not having removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism even though North Korea submitted its declaration of nuclear programs on June 26 as agreed under the six-party talks.

The North’s Foreign Ministry declared, first, that it would suspend disablement of nuclear facilities as of Aug. 14. Second, according to the ministry, as the concerned North Korean institutions strongly demand, measures to restore nuclear facilities in Yongbyon would be considered.

After reports surfaced that Kim collapsed in mid-August, that part about “concerned institutions making strong demands” takes on more meaning.

The most persuasive interpretation is that those “concerned institutions” meant the North Korean military. Whenever it had a chance, the military had attempted to block or check economic cooperation with the South and (the commitment made by Pyongyang) to abandon its nuclear development programs.

After the summit meeting with the South in June 2000, North Korea had opportunities to improve its ties with the United States, including the possibility of then-President Bill Clinton visiting Pyongyang before the end of his final term. But the North blew its chance, as the military kept this possibility in check.

To the military, tourism at Mount Kumgang and the industrial complex in Kaesong are unpleasant because South Koreans cross the Military Demarcation Line into the North.

After watching Saddam Hussein come to ruin because he didn’t possess nuclear weapons, the North Korean military believes that giving up nuclear development programs means giving up the nation’s best defense against U.S. threats.

Despite this, Kim was able to make progress in denuclearization and inter-Korean relations because he, as the chairman of the National Defense Commission, succeeded in maintaining a delicate balance between the Workers’ Party and the military.

Even a dictator loses his grip on power when his health fails. As Kim collapsed in mid-August, one can assume that within 10 days after his collapse, the military persuaded or pressed Kim, who was lying in hospital, to approve the suspension of the denuclearization process.

The question now is what will happen next.

Even if Kim’s condition gets better he has to govern the country from his hospital bed; it is suspected that the military might try to return to its traditional conservative, hard-line stance, regarding not only nuclear development but also tourism in Mount Kumgang and Mount Paektu, inter-Korean relations including expansion of the Kaesong Industrial Park and introducing economic reform and opening.

The worst-case scenario is that the military will be given more weight in the balance between the military, the Workers’ Party and the government, which Kim had managed well, and John McCain, who would be like the early President George. W. Bush in terms of North Korea policy, will be elected. Ironically, the North Korean military is assumed to want McCain to win.

Kim has died and been resurrected several times in the media.

As a result, we have become insensitive to news that he is incapacitated or is ill. But it’s different this time. This is a drill for us to plan a course of action in case Kim really does become incapacitated or dies.

The government’s North Korea policy must be examined to prepare for the time after Kim.

North Korea policy should continue to have reconciliation and cooperation as a basis, while a plan for the worst-case scenario is drawn up and reviewed regularly to make it better. If we make a fuss as if North Korea will collapse tomorrow, South-North Korean relations, which are already in bad shape, will only worsen further.

It is common sense to enhance Korea-U.S. cooperation. Does the government know what China’s plan is in case an emergency breaks out in North Korea?

But the most urgent thing is to restore dialogue that has been blocked since the Lee Myung-bak administration took office and to build trust with North Korea. Providing humanitarian food aid unconditionally is a more practical means to build trust than Operational Plan 5029.

What’s important now is to guard against hard-liners who, without exception, raise their voices at times like this. Hard-liners who are stuck in ideology don’t usually discern the possible from the impossible.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Young-hie
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