How to Handle North Korea in Time of Flux

A succession battle is destabilizing the hermit kingdom

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Last week we looked at North Korea's succession drama as leader Kim Jong-Il appears to be setting up his son, Kim Jong-Un, to take over the hermit kingdom. There is deep concern surrounding the Kim family's behavior and whether the country, much less the Kim regime, can survive a hastily assembled transition process. Now commentators, seeing the risk and uncertainty in North Korea's ability to sustain political stability, are advocating one form or another of international involvement to guide the process. Here's what they're saying.

  • Perfect Time for U.S. to Engage North Korea  U.S.-NoKo diplomacy has never been much of a success, but Ploughshares' Paul Carroll says now could be our chance. "Our best strategy is to figure out entry points to engage with the North, especially during a potentially unstable period. Our current approach seems to be 'well, let’s wait and see how the transition goes' and then figure out what to do. This passive approach risks too much; the chips that fall may be radioactive. Instead, the United States should be seeking some type of seat at the table, or even at the back of the room, to help ensure that any transfer is as stable as possible. Such engagement would also provide a better window on developments in Pyongyang. Any increase in knowledge about goings on there would be a marked enhancement to what we know now."
  • North Korea Using Nukes to Spur U.S. Talks  Joshua Pollack, blogging at Arms Control Wonk, sees signs of nuclear rearming. "For the past year or so, North Korea has been trying to draw the United States into talks on Pyongyang’s terms, with an emphasis on concluding a peace treaty over a quick return to denuclearization. With one hand, North Korea offers a return to the Six-Party Talks; with the other, they threaten to 'strengthen' or 'bolster up' their 'nuclear deterrence.' As the main visible sign of restoring the reactor, a new cooling tower would be a… well, concrete manifestation of that threat, lending it much more credibility than words alone: restarting the reactor means making more plutonium. ... The danger, now, is that the Obama Administration will simply dig in its heels, rather than finding a creative bridging formula to enable a return to the Six-Party Talks."
  • Can Beijing Control North Korea?  GlobalPost's Justin McCurry writes, "China is at best the only remaining conduit for engaging with the North; at worst it is an apologist for a uniquely grotesque dictatorship with a nuclear capability in its grasp. ... China has started prodding the North to introduce reforms to its command economy. The benefits to Beijing are clear: more bilateral trade, and access to the North’s ports and mineral resources. ... It is possible, though, that the North is more receptive to pressure for reform as it counts the cost, in dwindling aid and depleted foreign currency reserves, of U.N. and U.S. sanctions imposed in the wake of nuclear and missile tests and its involvement in the Cheonan sinking."
  • North Korea Probably Not Ready to Open Up  The Council on Foreign Relations' Peter Beck writes in the Korea Herald, "Can we expect North Korea’s new leaders pursue reform and opening? Optimists point to the fact that Jang is a technocrat who has witnessed China’s economic transformation. He even toured South Korea’s leading companies. Kim Jong-un has spent at least two years studying in Switzerland and is believed to be enamored with Western culture. Unfortunately, the Kim royal family must also recognize the inherently destabilizing nature of reform as a threat. If we are lucky, at least one of North Korea’s new leaders will try to follow in Park Chung-hee’s rather than Syngman Rhee’s footsteps, but more likely, they will behave like China’s Gang of Four, and prove to be the last gasp of a dictatorship. If there is a North Korean Deng Xiaoping, he will likely have to wait."
  • Regime on Its Way Out  National Review's Mario Loyola predicts, "The end of North Korea has been predicted for years, but now the signs are everywhere. It remains only to pray that this wicked regime passes beyond the twilight without ever using the cataclysmic weapon it now wields." He focuses on North Korea's "Dependence on modern China," which has been less and less willing to enable the regime and its bad behavior.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.