The sudden death of North Korea’s long-serving “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, has propelled the world’s last remaining Stalinist state back into the international spotlight. In the process, it has refocused attention on one of the most stubborn strategic dilemmas facing the United States.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has bedeviled American policymakers for as long as most people can remember. Under the nearly 6 1/2-decade-old dynasty headed first by “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung and more recently by the recently departed Mr. Kim, North Korea emerged as a global sponsor of terrorism, a nuclear-armed rogue state and a brutal prison for its own captive and impoverished population. Now, Mr. Kim’s demise has raised new questions about the future of the “Hermit Kingdom.”
The first revolves around leadership. Kim Jong-il’s 29-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, already has been anointed publicly as the “Great Successor” to the Kim legacy. But North Korea’s new leader is a political neophyte, having emerged into the national spotlight over just the past 3 1/2 years, following an August 2008 stroke that significantly impaired his father. Kim Jong-il, by contrast, enjoyed nearly three decades of prominent on-the-job training while his father, Kim Il-sung, ruled in Pyongyang. As a result, it is exceedingly likely that the younger Mr. Kim will be steered to a significant degree by the regime’s real center of gravity: the powerful military cabal known as the National Defense Commission.
Rule by committee isn’t the only possible consequence of Mr. Kim’s passing. The North could be on the cusp of a new era of domestic strife as internal factions jockey for political position. Indeed, recent shows of force by the North Korean military in the wake of Mr. Kim’s death could well be the outward signs of a struggle for political primacy taking place within the country. Under those circumstances, the notoriously unpredictable regime in Pyongyang could become even more so - with potentially devastating consequences for regional security in East Asia.
Then there is the issue of North Korea’s strategic capabilities. Kim Jong-il can be credited for making his country a truly international menace while he was in power. In the fall of 2002, Pyongyang caught Washington by surprise when it announced that it was a de facto nuclear power, having quietly erected a secret offensive nuclear program over the preceding decade in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated with the Clinton administration. North Korea’s strategic advances, in turn, have become a key source of global commerce and international prestige for Pyongyang. The regime, for example, is known to have provided significant assistance to Iran’s ballistic-missile program for years. Syria’s nuclear effort, too, is thought to have benefited from North Korean help until it was forcibly derailed by Israel in 2007.
The George W. Bush administration initially responded to these developments strategically. It did so by expanding missile-defense cooperation with regional allies such as Japan, investing in counterproliferation schemes such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, and isolating the Kim regime through biting economic sanctions. Over time, however, it backed away from those efforts, making multilateral diplomacy via the Six Party Talks the principal vehicle by which to address North Korea’s menace. Since the effective breakdown of negotiations in 2008, Washington’s approach toward Pyongyang has come to be defined by nothing.
Such inaction is no longer an option. There certainly is a slim hope that the passing of Kim Jong-il might end up ushering in a less radical regime in Pyongyang. Far more likely, however, is that the death of the Dear Leader will touch off a phase of domestic instability in North Korea and a period of heightened danger to its immediate neighborhood. In response, the United States needs a new North Korea strategy - one designed to reassure nervous regional allies through greater investments in security arrangements and defense capabilities and to expand our capacity to better contain and isolate the regime anew if and when it becomes necessary to do so.
Recent weeks have seen the Obama administration shift its attention away from the troubled Middle East and toward Asia in search of a much-needed foreign-policy victory. Now, quite unexpectedly, managing North Korea’s transition is fast emerging as a crucial test of that pivot.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.