[Viewpoint] Kim Jong-un’s first challenges

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[Viewpoint] Kim Jong-un’s first challenges

The sudden death of Kim Jong-il will not lead to immediate regime instability, some kind of lashing out, or friendly overtures to the United States and South Korea. For the rest of this month, Kim Jong-un, the “great successor,” will focus on mourning his father and consolidating the succession plan that the Korean Workers’ Party confirmed last October.

He will be guided by his uncle and de facto regent, Jang Song-thaek, and he will have the support of the senior military on the National Defense Commission. The elite in Pyongyang have no alternative; they must rely on the cult of personality and dynastic succession in the Kim family for their own legitimacy and cohesion. They hang together, or they hang separately, as the saying goes.

Next year, however, is a highly symbolic and politically charged year. It is the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth and the year that the North claims it will become a “strong and prosperous nation.” Some analysts see recent openings to Seoul and Washington as evidence that Kim Jong-il needed food aid and economic assistance to fulfill that pledge. Reports are that the U.S. State Department was ready this week to announce new food aid to North Korea before the death of Kim Jong-il put everything on hold.

There is some hope that Kim Jong-un’s first priority will be to follow through on those discussions and reach some agreement on a missile and nuclear testing moratorium and a return to the six-party talks. Just as Kim Jong-il negotiated the Agreed Framework with the United States the year after his father died, it could be that Kim Jong-un turns to engagement next year.

On the other hand, 2012 is also the year that North Korean propaganda has claimed the country will become a “full nuclear weapons state.” Through various channels, the North has demanded “arms control negotiations” with the United States as an equal nuclear weapons state, offering not to transfer nuclear capability abroad and perhaps to refreeze the Yongbyon facility in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, provision of light-water reactors and de facto acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear weapons status.

The North continues pressing for these concessions by overtly demonstrating new levels of development in its nuclear weapons capabilities and through threats, including two nuclear tests, the transfer of limited nuclear capacity to Syria and perhaps Myanmar, and showing U.S. visitors elements of the North’s clandestine uranium enrichment program. Their message to Washington is, “Deal with us, because we continue to become more dangerous as you wait.” For all these reasons, and given official testimony in Congress about the advancing state of the North’s nuclear weapons programs, Pyongyang could be due for another nuclear and missile testing demonstration sometime next year.

It is probable that Kim Jong-il had a long-term game plan for managing all these issues, but one with built-in flexibility. It could be that he intended to pocket food aid from the United States and South Korea, trump up charges that we had “hostile intent,” and then proceed with a nuclear test as planned. Or it could be that he intended to see how many concessions he could receive and then determine whether they would be worth a longer delay in his testing plans. We cannot know, of course.

One thing does seem apparent, however. Kim Jong-un’s period of mourning and internal focus will come to an end, and sometime in the spring or summer of next year, he will have to make decisions on how to proceed with plans for diplomacy or provocations in 2012. Those decisions could start to show evidence of whether there are fissures within the elite and whether he and his uncle have the command authority to retain power over the longer term.

The pressures on him will be enormous. If he proceeds with another round of overt demonstrations of the North’s nuclear program, he will face international pressure and sanctions. If he holds back on nuclear provocations, he could face increasing pressure to move to the next level of nuclear weapons status.

Only in his 20s with almost none of the two decades of operational experience his father brought to the job, young Kim will have to rely on the military for information and advice and the National Defense Council will, in turn, have more leeway in interpreting - or clashing - over his intent. It is possible, of course, that this junior four-star general and his uncle have real command presence, but that seems unlikely.

The more likely scenario is that he has little of his father’s ability to calibrate tensions with the outside world or to retain cohesion internally. If he were simply charged with upholding the aura of a great general and appearing to maintain a steady course, he would be in a stronger position. But he actually has to make consequential decisions on a strategy put in motion by his father that could, if mishandled, prove his undoing.

This is not to say that North Korea will automatically collapse because of the death of Kim Jong-il. There are strong incentives for the elite to maintain the Kim dynasty and Kim Jong-il has bequeathed the most stable succession plan he could. Yet one can also see how the North Korean pattern of confrontation, concession and nuclearization could prove beyond the capacity of the great successor.

*The writer is a senior advisor and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

By Michael Green
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