North Korea: still sliding towards the abyss?
9 Apr 2013|

Pyongyang Subway Museum MuralSpurred on by Tanya Ogilvie-White’s post on Friday, I want to add some thoughts to the mix on the current situation on the Korean peninsula.

What do we know about what’s really driving decision-making in Pyongyang? Unfortunately, the answer is ‘not very much’. So we have to work by theories instead. A first theory says that Kim Jong Un might well be using this crisis to consolidate his position internally. That’s plausible—in communist dictatorships it’s not uncommon for a leadership transition to take about four years. If that’s true in North Korea’s case, we’re still only about one third of the way through that period. Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011 pushed North Korea into a political contest for which the family was only half prepared. Remember how long they took to announce the death?

In the years before Kim Jong Il’s death, some Chinese interlocutors at ASPI exchanges were speculating that the family probably couldn’t get the third generation up and into place. Sometimes that thought has popped back into my mind while watching current events play out. Kim Jong Un is still young—if he can entrench his rule, he’ll likely be there for thirty years or more. So his opponents have an incentive to topple him early. If the current crisis is all about regime consolidation, then we have to conclude that the harder Kim Jong Un pushes the buttons for tensions on the peninsula, the less secure he feels in his position. Judging by recent events, then, he feels far less secure than many suppose. If that’s true, one of the scenarios we should be thinking about is a post-Kim Jong Un North Korea, even though it’s far from obvious how such a transition might proceed.

A second theory sees the recent events as externally rather than internally oriented—as a play for a rejuvenated North Korean strategic position in North Asia. To test that theory we need to look at North Korea’s key strategic assets. At the moment, weapons of mass destruction are not really the North’s strong suit. Even now the nuclear device mightn’t be in an easily transportable form. It might be something they could put on a ship, perhaps, and sail into a foreign port before detonating, but not something deliverable by missile. And while Kim Jong Un will be chuffed by the recent success of his long range missile test and his third nuclear test, he must know that two swallows don’t make a summer. Rather, the North’s strategic strength lies in three interwoven assets—its artillery poised just above the DMZ which can target Seoul, its status as a nascent nuclear state, and its reputation for high risk tolerance. Media reports that Kim Jong Un has ordered a boost in artillery production suggest that Pyongyang is devoting efforts and resources to all three areas, and that points to some kind of grand strategic play by the new young leader.

What would be the objective of that play? I don’t find plausible the argument that Kim Jong Un is doing all this just so North Korea can trade away its nuclear program for economic assistance. If it really wanted that sort of agreement, it’s had numerous opportunities to get it over the last twenty years. Nor do I accept that the North has wanted to come to an agreement capping and reducing its nuclear program and that others have been stopping it from doing so. Rather, Pyongyang wants an outcome that enhances its status and marginalises its rivals. To that end, Pyongyang clearly does want (amongst other things) direct bilateral negotiations with Washington—because that would show the US treats North Korea as its equal, thus legitimising the new leadership while marginalising US allies South Korea and Japan. Those who want Washington to send fewer B-2 and B-52 flights over South Korea and more diplomats to the North to talk directly to the regime are giving Kim a position that he can leverage in Pyongyang’s favour.

Unfortunately, we don’t know which (if either) of these theories is correct. And, worryingly, neither theory suggests that we’ve reached an end-point to tensions on the peninsula. If the new leadership is encountering difficulty in establishing its writ in Pyongyang, some bizarre twists might lie before us. And if Kim Jong Un really is engaged on a grand strategic gambit, he might well have further cards still to play.

What can Australia do to help? We can talk to Washington and Seoul, taking care to reassure South Korea that we are their friend and partner and that we will help where we can as the crisis unfolds. Our encouragement of China into the role of crisis manager is laudable, but it’s not clear that’s a role Beijing wants to play. The strongest motivation for Beijing to accept it isn’t exhortation from Canberra but concern about a much stronger US position in South Korea.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Joseph A Ferris III.