A need for prudenceThe death of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-il puts the Korean Peninsula on thin ice. The division of Korea, the great game played by four outside powers, and the economic and military tensions that have survived for nearly 60 years are at a potentially pivotal turning point.
For 17 years, Kim was a two-faced leader. He pushed his people to starvation, ordered the murder of South Koreans and developed weapons of mass destruction. He also paved the way for dialogue with South Korea. He displayed an amicable and humane image during a landmark summit with President Kim Dae-jung in 2000. He is the architect of the personality cult, dynastic rule and the other unique elements of North Korea’s governing system as well as the country’s belligerent and unpredictable foreign relations. His death could lead to major changes in the country’s policies on both the domestic and foreign fronts.
The problem is how the two Koreas and the four outside powers - the U.S., China, Japan, and Russia - respond to the changes. The Korean race’s destiny depends on the direction the two Koreas take. If the two Koreas demonstrate restraint and wisdom, they can open a new horizon of peace and potential for future generations. If narrow-mindedness and shortsightedness prevail, a catastrophic tragedy could pan out.
The two Koreas must use this turning point to seek ways to co-exist. They must refrain from comments and actions that could provoke one another. The North Korean military should not overreact to some South Korean responses to Kim Jong-il’s death. The government should consider sending a delegation to Kim’s funeral.
Many predicted a collapse of the North Korean regime when its founder, Kim Il Sung, died in July 1994, but the Communist regime remained intact for nearly 20 years. Heir Kim Jong-il had been systematically building his power base while running the country with his father. If the third-generation leader, Kim Jong-un, maintains similar loyalty from the elite governing class and resolves the nuclear issue, the Korean Peninsula will have peace. We should refrain from premature talk about North Korea’s insecurity under its new leadership and the possibility of unification. That’s provocative to the North.
But we must also prepare in case the new leadership fails. The military could attack South Korea in order to distract its people from domestic problems. The government must be fully ready for all possibilities.