Fallout is just beginning in North Korea

December 21, 2011

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

There are many surprising things about Kim Jong-il’s sudden death, not the least of which is that it took two days for the rest of the world to hear about it. Yet most surprising is the sanguine reaction of the global and especially the Asian markets. On Monday, or actually Sunday as we now know, the world woke up to its first leaderless nuclear power. Coming as close as anyone could to filling his seat was his youngest son, who is in his late twenties. There’s no way these facts were accurately priced into markets that took just a relatively minor dip as a first response. The news from North Korea appears to have been taken far too lightly, and just a few days out, it’s disappearing from the front pages.

While Kim Jong-un’s status as heir apparent seems to tie a nice bow around the situation, let’s get real for a moment. The son of the elder Kim only appeared on the North Korean stage after a stroke necessitated succession planning in Kim Jong-il’s regime in 2008. Consider that founder of the country Kim Il-sung put his son, Kim Jong-il, in front of the citizenry as his heir for more than a decade before his 1994 death. That decade was precious time; time Kim Jong-il spent consolidating power and putting his own people into high government office— and he was over 50 years old when his father passed away. Kim Jong-un has been deprived of that head start; he’s got to rely on whatever ground his dead father managed to clear for him since his 2008 stroke. A couple of years at his father’s side — and a promotion to four star general — is scant time for the younger Kim to have developed a real plan for ruling, or real allies in government.

That said, don’t expect Kim Jong-un to be deposed. There won’t be a North Korean spring — for real or for show — anytime soon. The country is too backward and too brainwashed to mount any sort of populist opposition to the ruling regime, and its people have little if any knowledge of the outside world. Even if Kim Jong-un proves unable to consolidate and retain power, all that would replace him as the head of state is a military junta or strongman; there’s no democracy on the horizon, given the country’s current sorry state of affairs.

The important relationship to watch going forward will be between North Korea and China. Kim will want to impress his people by letting more food into the markets and increasing their terrible standard of living in whatever marginal way he can. He’ll need cash to do so, and will probably call upon China to help. China is North Korea’s last substantial benefactor in the world. In a classic diplomatic sense, because North Korea is America’s enemy and South Korea is America’s friend, China has little choice but to keep propping up the North. If China changes its tack now, it could find North Korea inching towards reunification with the South, putting a firm American ally right on its border. The question is, will China support Kim Jong-un wholeheartedly, or will it too take a step back and see what emerges from the power struggles sure to be playing out behind the scenes at this very moment?

Meanwhile, the U.S. has taken the right approach to this complicated situation: the White House has decided to sit back, watch and wait. It could, and likely already is, offering behind-the-scenes humanitarian relief to the North Korean people. It should continue to offer any such assistance that it thinks will be accepted. The Obama administration should not by any means be applying diplomatic pressure to restart six party talks or anything else of the sort. In essence, the free world should be rooting for Kim Jong-un to stabilize the country so that it can again try to bring North Korea out of the dark ages in an orderly fashion.

The British SAS used to say that when securing a dangerous environment, you should shoot the first person who makes a move (hostile or otherwise) to ensure authority. While I’m not advocating violence, one has to hope Kim Jong-un can consolidate power sufficiently, so that the world at least knows who it’s dealing with when it comes to North Korea. We don’t know what kind of leader he’ll be, or if he’ll even be a leader for very long, but a country that treats its rulers as gods needs someone at the top of the pyramid to keep from devolving into chaos. Otherwise, the world is back to where it was the day after Kim Jong-il died — a day in which no one knew whose finger was on the North Korean nuclear button.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

Photo: New North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un (C) pays his respects to his father and former leader Kim Jong-il (R) who is lying in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang in this still picture taken from video footage aired by KRT (Korean Central TV of the North) December 20, 2011. REUTERS/KRT via REUTERS TV


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> “putting a firm American ally right on its border”

If this is what bothers the Chinese about abandoning the status quo; I personally think this is an unfounded fear. Just look at Germany. A firm ally of the West? Perhaps, but not an unthinking one… They declined to get involved in Iraq, Libya etc. They maintain friendly relationships with Russia, with enough two-way trust to embark on the Nord Stream project (now complete).
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-1 5637244

The reunification of Germany was not a simple recolouring of the map from red to blue; but people and ideas crossed newly dissolved borders in both directions, between brother peoples who had been unnaturally separated by force.

Why should the same future not come to Korea? Unification would not be cheap, and lessons could be learned from the experience of Germany; but just look at what can be achieved! Germany is now a bridge between East and West, trusted by bother sides, and a beacon of prosperity, fiscal prudence and comparative class-equality and societal harmony to all the countries around it.

What else do the Chinese want? I struggle to see how the two situations are so different…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

A very informative article, but one aspect of situation in North Korea is simply behind comprehension of West, free people, namely brainwashing. 25-30 years ago it was not difficult to take a two week trip to North Korea from my country. I know persons who had opportunity to travel around the country and spend some time/talk with North Korean students/guides, peers of their age (20-23). On any occasion when discussion/questions related to internal situation of NK the students became very nervous and scared to death, speechless.
I think nobody in United States really knows what to do with North Korea.
China and North Korea have very important and strong mutual interests, both benefit from the status quo.
North Korea plays dangerous country, controlled only by China, ocassionally blackmailing South to receive more rice.
China play also their part marvelously, patron, the only country that Kim Dynasty listens to. Defender in United Nations Security Council. It rises the influence of China in Asia.
That is why Hu Jinto gave so strong mandate to new Kim by visiting Korean embassy. Very important gesture, very important words were spoken:”Do not interfere (US and South Korea), try to stabilize, status quo is best, we guarantee status quo, no body knows what will be in any other scenario”.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

I have just a small adjustment of perspective to add to the conversation.

We talk a lot about N. Korea’s nukes. And we should. But they never were the game changer they have been made out to be. Here’s why:

Right now at this moment and for 6 consecutive decades the North has aimed at Seoul a vast array of conventional artillery and missiles. Over time, as one might expect, the quantity of these weapon emplacements has only grown.

What this means is that in approximately the first 20 seconds of a war (or technically the end of a cease-fire in a war that never ended) between North and South enough conventional ordnance will be launched at the South to easily kill over 11 million South Koreans. All those weapons would only need to be fired once to achieve that kind of death toll. Since they are kept loaded and manned at all times, all that would be required is merely for the order to be given.

Nukes are a way for the North to threaten enemies further afield, like Japan and the United States (although it probably still lacks missiles with sufficient range to hit North America). But it’s real deterrent has always been conventional and impervious to any first strikes. If the South ever wished to attack, it would have to empty one of the world’s largest cities first, hardly something it could accomplish in secret.

That is the basis for the current strategic impasse, not nukes.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

(quote) “British SAS used to say … shoot the first person who makes a move (hostile or otherwise) to ensure authority.”

still happens in england, during peaceful marches and even when innocently catching a train

(http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2005/jul/2 3/july7.uksecurity11)

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

“a country that treats its rulers as gods needs someone at the top of the pyramid to keep from devolving into chaos.”

I take issue with this. What kind of person at the top is needed? Of course, every society needs leaders. But the author seems to be implying that democracy is impossible in North Korea, and therefore we need another absolute dictator.

However, limited democracy and free speech is conceivable, as a first step. If you don’t start building democracy somewhere, then you are left with another absolute dictator who will be just as dangerous to the world as the one he replaced.

The present situation may be a rare opportunity for North Koreans to increase their personal freedom, even if only slightly.

Posted by DifferentOne | Report as abusive