Confronting North Korea: Who’s in charge?

Doug Bandow Senior Fellow, The Cato Institute
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We see through a glass darkly, said the Apostle Paul, and that is certainly the case when it comes to North Korea. Power appears to be shifting as the Supreme People’s Assembly meets in Pyongyang.

The premier has been replaced. Three other ministers were replaced. Six vice premiers were added. And Kim’s brother-in-law, Chang Song-taek, was elevated to the vice chairmanship of the National Defense Commission, the true fount of power in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

All of these moves were orchestrated by “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, whose power has never seemed in doubt. The switch in prime ministers may reflect an attempt to boost the economy after a botched currency exchange last fall. One of the other ministerial changes covers foodstuffs—amid rumors of worsening food shortages.

But Chang’s move may be the most important, since he is seen as Kim’s closest ally who managed the affairs of state when Kim was recovering from a stroke. Chang also has been tasked with helping to manage the anointment of Kim’s 28-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, as the latter’s successor.

Adding mystery to the latest moves were three other recent leadership changes. In April a top party official was said to have died of a heart attack. In May a member of the NDC was said to have retired because of his age, 80, even though plenty of other aging officials hold top positions. And last week a senior official in the Korean Worker’s Party—a rival of Chang’s who also was reportedly entrusted with smoothing the transfer of power—was said to have died in a car accident.

All plausible explanations. But all equally plausible covers for a power struggle.

There never would be a good time for instability in North Korea. The heavily armed regime continues with its nuclear program. It has been pulling back in its modest economic liberalization of recent years. In April the DPRK apparently sank the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, the North’s first deadly act of war in more than two decades.

Since then the Republic of Korea has cut economic ties and barred Pyongyang’s ships from South Korean waters. The North reciprocated by closing, or at least saying that it intended to close, the Kaesong industrial park, in which ROK companies employ North Korean workers.

Hostile rhetoric has filled the air, but no one really wants war. Although the DPRK has made brinkmanship its principal negotiating strategy, Pyongyang knows that it would lose any conflict. Even when it comes to whatever nuclear capability Kim Jong-il has developed—miniaturizing weapons and developing delivery systems are not easy—deterrence works. He and his cohorts want their virgins (and liquor) in this life, not the next.

The Cheonan’s sinking, while not likely to lead to war, does provide several important geopolitical lessons.

First, there may be serious, potentially destabilizing internal regime conflicts which are currently hidden. Theories abound about the sinking of the Cheonan, including rogue military act to block better relations with the West and officially sanctioned policy to win military support for Kim Jong-un’s succession. The recently announced personnel shifts only deepen the mystery.

Second, the ROK’s military, despite supposedly possessing maritime superiority, must focus more on national defense. Seoul has been grandly thinking of an increased regional and even global military role. But when the North can use a midget-sub, as one theory runs, to sink a South Korean ship in South Korean waters, the Lee government must focus on its most important responsibility, safeguarding the nation.

Third, the U.S.-ROK alliance has outlived its usefulness. The South is well-able to defend itself, with some 40 times the DPRK’s GDP and twice the DPRK’s population. There’s no reason for Washington, which faces a deficit of $1.6 trillion this year, to borrow money for the privilege of defending South Korea, which is well able to spend much more on its military if circumstances require.

Fourth, there’s no reason to expect a “soft landing” in the North. The existing regime has demonstrated enormous resilience, both in surviving crisis and in resisting change. However, it took Kim Il-sung, who won control with Soviet aid at the North’s founding in 1949, decades to transfer power to his son, Kim Jong-il. The latter is in ill health and probably doesn’t have nearly as much time to orchestrate a similar transfer. The result could be a messy power struggle on Kim’s death, with, in addition to Kim Jong-un, two other sons, a brother-in-law, a younger half-brother, past and present wives, various illegitimate children, and any number of officials who have been waiting years, even decades, for their chance to gain control.

Finally, the key to solving the “North Korean problem” is China. Shortly after the sinking of the Cheonan Kim Jong-il scurried off to the PRC, apparently with his chosen son in tow. Today Beijing provides the DPRK with the bulk of its food and energy. Until now the Chinese leadership has believed that pushing Kim too hard risked the stability of the peninsula. But if Kim is willing to commit an act of war against the South, his regime is the real source of dangerous regional instability. The PRC would be serving its own interest if it acted to neuter Pyongyang.

It’s hard to believe, but the situation in North Korea could get worse. Imagine a weak collective leadership after Kim’s death dissolving into warring factions as competing officials looked to their favorite Kim relative or army general. Imagine burgeoning civil strife, growing public hardship, and mass refugee flows. Or violence flowing across the Yalu River to the north and demilitarized zone to the south.

Washington’s best policy would be to step back from this geopolitical miasma. Any map demonstrates which countries have the most at stake in a stable Korean peninsula: South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. It is time for them to take the lead. America could help as they search for a solution. But North Korea truly is their problem far more than Washington’s problem.

For more information, see a newly released study by the American Action Forum here.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including “Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy” (Cato Institute) and “The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea” (Palgrave/Macmillan, co-author).