[Viewpoint] U.S. skepticism over Kim Jong-unThe long anticipated coming-out party for Kim Jong-il’s third son, Kim Jong-un, finally took place on Sept. 28 when his promotion to four-star general was announced in advance of the first Korean Workers’ Party assembly in three decades.
Together with the appointment of Jang Song-thaek as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and the promotion of Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Kyong-hui, to the rank of general and membership on the National Defense Commission, this seems to put the succession plan in place for the 68-year-old leader of the North.
The U.S. media has been interested in the story and the Obama administration is following the developments closely, but the general attitude in Washington is that this announcement offers little prospect of changing the nuclear standoff on the Korean peninsula .?.?. at least not for the foreseeable future.
Chinese officials have been urging the Obama administration and other Asia hands in Washington to take the succession more seriously. Beijing’s argument is that the promotion of young Kim Jong-un demonstrates that the Kim Il Sung Dynasty is enduring and that North Korea may now be confident enough to follow China’s example of modernization, economic reform and opening.
The best way to encourage North Korea to move in that direction, according to Beijing, would be to resume U.S. engagement with Pyongyang through China’s three-stage formula of bilateral U.S.-DPRK talks, head of delegate talks and then a full six-party session.
Chinese officials know Pyongyang well because of extensive party-to-party ties with the Korean Workers’ Party and increasing economic relations with the North. However, most official and expert opinion in Washington is not buying Beijing’s line of argument.
For one thing, the Chinese assessment is transparently self-serving. Beijing does not want Washington or Seoul to continue with contingency planning for instability or collapse in North Korea and would rather have other countries take steps that prop up the regime, particularly since China has no strategic interest in a unified democratic Korea emerging on its border.
The other reason for skepticism about positive change after the promotion of Kim Jong-un to “Great General” is that the succession process has been accompanied by a much harder line from Pyongyang on almost every issue. Lacking legitimacy on any other front, the regime has intensified propaganda extolling its status as a nuclear-armed state.
Even a recent speech by the North Korean representative at the UN General Assembly made little effort to conceal Pyongyang’s central focus on its own nuclear weapons.
On economic reform the North has also gone backward, essentially reversing many of the so-called reforms from 2002 in a retrograde effort to establish control over foreign exchange in the country.
As my colleague Victor Cha of Georgetown University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies points out, North Korean economic policy increasingly resembles the more centralized approach of the 1950s and 1960s. Pyongyang’s insecurity about the succession process is probably one reason for this harder line approach.
In fact, the awkwardly staged succession highlights more weaknesses in the North Korean system than strengths. The repeated delay in announcing Kim Jong-un’s status raised questions about Kim Jong-Il’s own health and whether there really is internal consensus behind Kim Jong-un’s accession (Kim Il Sung faced significant internal resistance when he promoted Kim Jong-il at the same stage).
Jang Song-thaek was reportedly purged and under arrest for several years and may suffer from alcoholism, which raises questions about his own capabilities as a regent (together with a colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations, I was invited to North Korea in 1999 by representatives of Jang, but the trip was canceled at the last minute - perhaps in connection with Jang’s later political problems).
Kim Kyong-hui is more immune to political purges because of her blood line, but there is little evidence that she has manipulated the reins of power in North Korea with any impact up to this point.
The same is true for the “Great General,” Kim Jong-un. In short, rather than raising expectations of a softer line or more opportunity with the North, the succession process has only reinforced the view of many in and out of government in Washington that contingency planning for regime change in the North is necessary.
It is possible, of course, that Kim Jong-un could emerge as a more progressive leader after his father passes from the scene. Some hopeful commentators have pointed to his international experience and reported fluency in German and other languages as a sign that he could be the North’s Gorbachev.
It would be a mistake to completely rule out that possibility, even if the behavior of the North Korean regime thus far points in the opposite direction. For that reason, Washington will find some utility in restoring a channel for dialogue with the North.
However, expectations remain low that North Korea will negotiate over the nuclear issue in good faith at this point. As a result, nobody in the Obama administration appears eager to rush back to the table - and that includes the most senior officials in the State Department, National Security Council and the Defense Department.
At a minimum, the administration will wait until North-South relations progress to the point that Seoul is comfortable with a U.S.-DPRK track resuming. And given the North’s stance toward Seoul during this entire succession drama in Pyongyang, that could be a while.
*The writer is an adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
by Michael Green