The Top Five Ways Things Could Go Wrong in the Hermit Kingdom
Thursday, January 5, 2012
It is not difficult to imagine things getting very messy very quickly in Northeast Asia.
Stability seems to be the watchword in the aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s death. Leaders in the United States, across Asia, and even in Europe have been calling for stability on the Korean peninsula. But as nice as stability might be, it is not difficult to imagine things getting very messy very quickly in Northeast Asia. Forthwith, the top five ways things could go wrong in the Hermit Kingdom:
Scenario 1: A Successful Succession
Kim Jong-un succeeds his father and assumes the leadership unchallenged. Northeast Asia quickly returns to business as usual. But business as usual is in no way stable. Business as usual implies a North Korean regime that is building a nuclear arsenal, carries out acts of war when it so pleases, is a serial proliferator of missile and nuclear technology, is involved in narcotics trafficking, and has ties to terrorists. Probably not the kind of stability world leaders have in mind.
Scenario 2: Intra-family Rivalry
Jong-un, in his late 20s and with only a year of high-level government experience under his belt, is almost certainly unprepared to lead his reclusive communist state.
Upon Kim Jong-il’s death, his brother-in-law Jang Song-taek steps in to act as regent to the young Kim Jong-un. Jong-un, in his late 20s and with only a year of high-level government experience under his belt, is almost certainly unprepared to lead his reclusive communist state. As young Kim hones his chops, he serves as a figurehead while Jang Song-taek calls the shots. But while this might provide short-term stability, it is not long before Jong-un begins to bridle under his uncle’s authority. Nor is there reason to expect that Jang will go quietly into the night when Kim decides he is ready to rule. This family conflict—which involves Kim’s alcoholic yet powerful aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, as well—tears the regime apart at the seams as factions from the military and Korean Workers Party line up behind their chosen successor.
Scenario 3: A Military Coup
A cabal of purged military officers is responsible for Kim’s “heart attack.” Perhaps Kim’s constant purging and un-purging of political and military elites grew tiresome. Or perhaps Kim’s decision to appoint his son as a four-star general in a military in which Jong-un never served was simply too insulting to the high command. Upon deciding that Kim Jong-un would never be allowed to rule, military elites have determined to get rid of him sooner rather than later, before his base of support solidifies. But knocking off the young Jong-un while Dear Leader was still around would have been too risky. With Jong-il out of the way, the Korean People’s Army is just biding its time and allowing the dust to settle before finishing the job.
North Korea has long maintained a “military first” policy. One shivers to think what such a policy would look like if the military actually ran the country.
Scenario 4: Provocation and Retaliation
Nor is there reason to expect that Jang will go quietly into the night when Kim decides he is ready to rule.
In an effort to prove his mettle, to bolster his credentials as a strongman, and to shore up his support amongst the military leadership, Kim Jong-un orders a Korean mini-submarine to once again sink a South Korean frigate. But in assuming that Seoul will, as last time, carry out a months-long investigation before reacting, Jong-un miscalculates. Instead, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak orders immediate retaliation: the South Korean air force launches an air strike on the nearest North Korean naval base and destroyers cross the Northern Limit Line in search of the offending sub. Does Kim Jong-un have the authority in Pyongyang to prevent an all-out shooting war?
Scenario 5: Chinese Armed Forces Enter North Korea
Beijing has long worried about an influx of North Korean refugees that a peninsular crisis could cause. The North Korean people are already hungry. Many are starving. As Kim Jong-il’s death adds yet another element of uncertainty into their lives, it is the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back, especially as the food crisis worsens in the early days of the transition. North Korean peasants begin heading for the Chinese border in droves, hoping food will be easier to come by in the People’s Republic. The North Korean military has reportedly already deployed more troops to the border to prevent potential refugees from escaping. When North Korean forces fail to effectively lock down the border and begin killing large numbers of refugees trying to escape the country, China uses the humanitarian crisis as rationale to send in troops. The presence of Chinese forces south of the Yalu enters an entirely new variable into the Korean peninsula security equation.
Michael Mazza is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.
FURTHER READING: Mazza also writes “How the United States Can Capitalize on Kim Jong Il's Death,” “Don't Ditch Taiwan,” “Why the Six Party Talks Won't Bring Peace to the Korean Peninsula,” and “When Force Works.” Michael Auslin contributes “Japan Needs a North Korea Reset” and “What Next for North Korea?”