Bracing for every possibilityAfter news about the public activities of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un suddenly came to a stop for over two weeks, the rest of the world has begun to question whether he died after a heart surgery. Presumptions of his potential death pose a serious security challenge to the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia. The uncertainty demands the Moon Jae-in administration and international society to take a cool-headed approach to a potential contingency in the reclusive state.
Kim’s unusual disappearance from a national event celebrating his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15 created suspicions about his health. Given the unique characteristics of the North Korean regime, however, it is not desirable for us to jump to any conclusions unless Pyongyang makes an official announcement on his whereabouts.
Nevertheless, the Moon administration should be prepared for any possibility, including his death, to safeguard our national security now that North Korea has become a de facto nuclear power with over 30 nuclear warheads. If a power vacuum emerges in the country, concerns over the safety of its nuclear weapons will deepen further along with China’s increasing influence on its ally across the border.
The government has focused its security and diplomatic efforts on improving inter-Korean exchanges over the last three years to the extent of creating many schisms in the Korea-U.S. alliance and its relations with Japan, as seen in the crisis with the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Tokyo. But if a crisis occurs in the North, there is no better security apparatus for us than the decades-old alliance.
If an emergency takes place on the peninsula — a hot spot arguably the most susceptible to global power politics — China and Russia will surely intervene in any way they want. China, in particular, has been stationing military forces along the border as it regards North Korea a vital security issue. If the North Korean regime is on the brink of collapse, China will most likely send the troops to its ally and establish a pro-Beijing regime in the country. Seoul must do its best to minimize China’s intervention in the North based on the solid alliance with Uncle Sam and strive to achieve denuclearization of the peninsula toward the goal of establishing a permanent peace system.
The government must double-check a phased operational plan it has drawn up with the United States to cope with contingencies in the North and prepare a detailed set of action plans. At the same time, the government must consolidate a joint defense posture with America. In that sense, it would be better to wrap up the ongoing negotiation to settle their disagreements over the defense cost-sharing deal as quickly as possible.
April 27 marks the second anniversary of the Panmunjom agreement signed by President Moon and Kim Jong-un to take a step toward peace. Given the rumored vegetative condition of Kim and the presidential election season in the United States, it is unclear if a productive dialogue among Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang could continue. It is not a time to remain idle. The Moon administration must concentrate on risk management through humanitarian aid to help North Korea weather the coronavirus storm, while bracing for anything in North Korea.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 27, Page 34