Last August, negotiators from the two Koreas resolved yet another crisis provoked by the North, in which South Korea’s use of loudspeakers to broadcast messages across the Demilitarized Zone spurred threats of war from the North. That was welcome news for the region and the world: Amid growing fears about the Chinese economy, there are already plenty of reasons to worry about events in Northeast Asia. Nonetheless, the underlying uncertainty regarding North Korea’s future under Kim Jong-un remains, and the latest episode provides an important opportunity to evaluate his leadership.
Mr. Kim’s behavior was much in keeping with that of his father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, Kim Il-sung: Create a crisis for no apparent reason, and expect a reward for ending it. But, in the latest crisis, Mr. Kim gained little. North Korea received no new food deals, no economic or financial assistance, no help with energy or agriculture, and no warm words from the Chinese. Indeed, it is difficult to see why Mr. Kim started this crisis in the first place.
What Mr. Kim does seem to have received is South Korea’s agreement to stop the broadcasts, which included some telling personal criticism of him. And that may have been enough.
By all accounts, Mr. Kim enjoys little personal legitimacy in North Korea. In Korean tradition, entrusting the family fortune to the youngest of a third generation is sometimes a dicey proposition. His father, Kim Jong-il, struggled mightily to fill Kim Il-sung’s shoes. Kim Jong-un, it seems, is having even greater difficulty managing the family business.
Indeed, he has launched what many are calling a reign of terror: Scores of senior officials have been summarily and brutally executed, while others cower in fear. Despite the occasional construction project — usually an amusement park — North Korea under Kim Jong-un continues on its path toward oblivion.
The country’s economy is a shambles, with its agricultural base, in the absence of any modern engineering and technology, increasingly susceptible to the vicissitudes of the weather. The authorities’ decision to allow markets to operate reflects the need to make a virtue of necessity: As has been true of decaying communist regimes elsewhere, the government cannot afford to pay the collective farms for their output.
China has essentially washed its hands of its small neighbor. Russia, challenged to court new friends but also struggling to manage its own weakening economy, is not interested in reviving a friendship with a country that seems to have made it a point of principle never to pay anyone for anything. One hallmark of Kim Jong-un’s leadership has been his disinterest in negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Indeed, while the Chinese in recent years struggled to restart the six-party talks, the North Koreans quietly informed them, “No thanks.”
North Korea under Kim Jong-un has invested heavily and worked hard to develop ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Its erstwhile partners — indeed the whole world — have been given no other choice but to tighten sanctions, increase vigilance and, in the case of the United States and its allies, develop high-tech defenses that could render North Korean offensive systems obsolete before they are even unveiled.
During the six-party process, over the course of four years, North Korea’s interlocutors (the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan) offered the regime what amounted to a grand bargain: Shut down the nuclear program in exchange for a broad range of assistance and assurances. Kim Jong-un has walked away from the benefits that would come from recognition as a member of the international community in good standing, apparently intent on leading his country further into the wilderness.
Given this, it is easy to understand why many analysts have begun to focus on what North Korea’s demise might mean for political arrangements on the Korean Peninsula. At some point, and in some undefined way, North Korea will be unable to function, and South Korea will become the successor state.
Many South Koreans are not sure they are prepared to accept the responsibility of absorbing the North’s population. But, though they will debate and decide the particulars, they will not have much choice. Faced with such a historic challenge, Koreans, bearing in mind their descendants’ prospects and their ancestors’ wishes, will accept and ultimately embrace reunification.
The task will be monumental. The relatively recent example of German reunification offers some guidance, but Korea will have to chart its own course. It will need not only sound planning but also friends, allies and partners in the process.
On Oct. 16, South Korean President Park Geun-hye will have a summit with President Obama in Washington. There will be a full agenda of current issues to discuss. But, given Kim Jong-un’s abysmal leadership in the North, it might be a good idea to make some time to talk about what an eventual border between China and a unified Korea might look like should North Korea not endure the test of time.
• Christopher R. Hill, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asia, was U.S. ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia and Poland, a U.S. special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is currently dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.