Kim Jong-il is dead. The question on everyone’s mind now seems to be: What happens next? It is a question that is difficult if not impossible to answer. Because North Korea has essentially been a black box for the past few decades, outsiders’ knowledge about the internal political dynamics and even about purported heir Kim Jong-un is severely lacking.
Did Kim Jong-il put in place a succession process before his death? Will Kim Jong-un step directly into the elder Kim’s shoes? Or will one of Jong-il’s close advisers serve as regent while Jong-un continues to hone his chops? Are the military and political leaderships unified in support of Jong-un or will there be a period of factional infighting before a new leader consolidates power? Is China content to see Kim Jong-un take the reins, or might Beijing be betting on a different horse? Troublingly, the answer to each of these questions is that we simply don’t know.
But “What happens next?” is not really the question we should be asking. More important is to ask what the United States wants to happen next, and what it can do to bring about that outcome. Indeed, Kim Jong-il’s failed heart has afforded Washington a rare opportunity to effect real and lasting change on the Korean peninsula.
America’s long-term goal in this regard is a denuclearized, unified Korea under Seoul’s democratic leadership. If regime change is the goal, it behooves the United States to prevent Kim Jong-un — or whoever steps up to lead in North Korea — from consolidating power and returning to business as usual. Rather, the United States should apply maximum pressure now in order to convey that business as usual is no longer a viable option.
Washington can apply pressure in a variety of domains. Perhaps most easily, it can take steps to freeze the Kim family assets held in foreign banks and those of other top North Korean leaders. Similarly, the United States can take steps to crack down on Pyongyang’s illicit activities, such as counterfeiting and weapons proliferation. The United States Navy and our partners’ navies, for example, could make it policy to stop and inspect as many North Korean merchant vessels leaving port as possible.
Kim Jong-il always used cash and prizes to buy the loyalty of his closest subordinates and Kim Jong-un will likely do the same. But if the younger Kim is unable to feed the luxurious habits of his lieutenants, then they will not be his lieutenants for long.
It is already the case that Pyongyang cannot feed the North Korean people. In that environment, an intensive information dissemination campaign targeted at the North Korean population writ large and the military’s foot soldiers in particular could be effective. Such a campaign would aim to make clear to North Koreans the true, rapacious nature of the Kim regime while conveying foreign support for those yearning to be free.
The United States can take military steps to increase the pressure on the regime as well. Washington should immediately deploy more naval forces to the waters around the Korean peninsula and redeploy the stealthy F-22 fighter jets from Guam to Japan or South Korea. The United States should make clear that it will not tolerate any provocations on or around the peninsula; it will retaliate for any strikes on South Korean soil or military assets and make preparations to prevent the North from conducting nuclear or missile tests.
Successfully deterring Kim Jong-un, who certainly doesn’t want a war on his hands, from launching such provocations would have the additional benefit of preventing young Kim from establishing his bona fides as the new strongman in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong-un will find it difficult to survive discontent that is spread amongst the political and military elite and the population as a whole. So will whoever succeeds Kim when he falls.
If the United States can sustain a high level of pressure and keep the regime’s attention focused on internal leadership struggles, Washington may buy enough time for North Korea’s people to enact their own change. Short-term instability just may be the price of North Korean freedom and long-term peace. That’s a price worth paying.
Michael Mazza is a senior research associate in Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.