[Viewpoint]The autarkic North

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[Viewpoint]The autarkic North

From the perspective of the United States and South Korea, a worst-case scenario in North Korea is that the weakening of Kim Jong-il’s grip on power would create political and social unrest there. After rumors about Kim Jong-il’s health emerged, it became clear that countries that once wanted regime change in the North now cross their fingers and hope for the survival of the regime that drove its own people to hunger and violated human rights.

If political and social unrest created by a power struggle in the North develop to a state of anarchy, causing a rush of defectors across the Chinese border, China will certainly find an excuse for intervention. This will in turn disrupt the power balance and peace in Northeast Asia.

What is even more dangerous is the weakening of Kim’s control over nuclear weapons as a consequence of his loss of power. It is estimated that North Korea has seven to 12 nuclear warheads or equivalent amounts of fissile material. If radical factions in the North Korean Army or any other unsavory elements get hold of the nuclear arsenal, world peace will be threatened.

As there are signs that Kim’s grip on power is weakening due to ill health, North Korea experts anticipate that Kim Jong-il will delegate some of his power to a group of military and party leaders. That is, he will establish a system of collective rule by officials who act under his guidance.

Actually, there is a possibility that collective rule by Kim’s proxies has already started after Kim had a stroke in mid-August. One sign is the sudden but belated announcement on Aug. 26 that North Korea suspended the disabling of its nuclear facilities on Aug. 14 and would consider restoring the facilities at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon.

If North Korea wants to prevent unrest among military officers and party cadres at a time when Kim’s leadership is weakening due to his poor health, it might be necessary to consolidate loyalty by showing off the country’s nuclear capability.

If it wants to boost the military’s morale, it might also be necessary to renew the drive to develop nuclear weapons. It was recently discovered that the North has tested an engine for a long-range missile at a new launching pad on the west coast.

Before the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994, Western observers predicted North Korea would collapse within three days to three years of his death. However, Kim Jong-il has been in power for 14 years.

After his father’s death, Kim tightly closed the doors to the outside world and ruled the country using the precepts of his late father’s teachings. Under this self-imposed isolation, Kim somehow managed to survive and save North Korea from collapse.

It is clear, therefore, what choice the North will make at a time when Kim’s health is in question. As a turtle withdraws its head, limbs and tail into its shell, North Korea will again go into isolation to overcome the leadership crisis.

North Korea seems to feel it has accomplished its strategic target where nuclear weapons development is concerned. Although its technology is in a primitive stage, Pyongyang performed a nuclear test and test-fired a series of missiles in 2006, including an intercontinental one. The North now demands that the world recognize it as a nuclear power.

Even if the North ignores the agreement from the six-party talks and restores its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, few countermeasures seem available.

Military options are out of the question because of the North’s nuclear arsenal. After all, the nuclear development program has become a vital strategy for the regime’s survival, as Kim Jong-il and his military wished. It is also proven that the North’s leadership never intended to give it up. It was not proper, therefore, to try to settle the North Korean nuclear issue through negotiations or compromises.

If the North starts to restore its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, there is no choice but to return to pressure tactics using both carrots and sticks. All possible nonmilitary means, including economic, financial and trade sanctions, should be mobilized.

China’s role is important. North Korea relies on China for more than half of its foreign trade. According to the latest research on the North Korean economy, more than 70 percent of the manufactured goods sold in North Korea are made in China and 80 percent of production facilities in the North are for Chinese products. If China imposes economic sanctions, North Korea cannot last for long.

Since September 2005, the whole world has waited for the North to give up its nuclear weapons program in return for diplomatic recognition and economic assistance. If the North breaks that agreement by restoring the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, no country will stay on its side.


*The writer, a former editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily, is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.

by Park Sung-soo
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