International Herald Tribune
Philip Bowring: Imagining the next North Korea
Sunday, September 21, 2008

HONG KONG: Forecasting what might happen should Kim Jong Il die or become incapacitated in the near future is mostly futile. The Pyongyang leadership is as secretive about its internal politics as the Kremlin or the Forbidden City was in the heyday of Stalin or Mao.

The vacuum of real information has enabled some of the wilder scenarios to flourish. One is that the death of the "Dear Leader" will be the end of the Kim Il Sung dynasty and that the government will collapse as quickly as the Ceaucescu regime in Romania in 1989. That will lead to the reunification of North and South, just as the collapse of the Berlin Wall quickly led to the reunification of Germany.

Desirable as this might be in principle, it would create devastating economic and social problems for the South, and upset the strategic balance in northeast Asia.

Alternatively, a collapse of the regime would cause a broad breakdown in governance, a collapse of institutions that would make North Korea a failed state in political as well as economic terms, creating huge humanitarian problems.

Another scenario is that a ruthless civil war will ensue between factions of the Communist Party and army. Without a firm hand, North Korea might become more reckless, reneging on existing nuclear commitments agreed upon at the six-party talks. Factions would compete in nationalistic displays toward South Korea or Japan and perhaps provoke military action, even, as a last resort, using its nuclear arsenal.

For sure, uncertainty is discomforting. But there are several reasons why none of the above scenarios are likely to occur. Change in the post-Kim era, at least in the initial phase, is likely to be gradual. It is more probable that there will be a repeat of the sustained period of diplomatic inaction and domestic stasis that followed the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. Back then, Kim Jong Il - despite his parenthood - needed plenty of time to assure his grip on power before taking any initiatives.

This time around the process could be more difficult. Kim Il Sung spent many years preparing for his son's succession. But Kim Jong Il has done nothing publicly, whether out of belief in his own longevity or because he is too uncertain of his power to choose a successor - whether it be his own son or someone from outside the family.

A clouded succession would mean that progress on nuclear issues would come to a halt, just as Kim Il Sung's death delayed the first North-South summit meeting by several years. But given that Pyongyang is already a nuclear power of sorts, stasis does not imply enhanced danger, merely more frustration for the United States and other great powers.

The alarmist scenarios ignore the fact that the Communist Party and North Korean Army are large, disciplined organizations. Their senior ranks are primarily interested in their own survival and in guarding their privileges. A new leadership may conclude that there are better ways of prospering than by continuing existing economic and diplomatic policies. North Korea's leaders have shown for years that they are cruel and calculating, but not messianic or self-destructive. Power struggles there may well be. But, as in China after Mao's death - which saw the arrest of the Gang of Four and the gradual sidelining of Mao's appointed successor - the struggle took place within the party, not on the streets. For most Chinese, post-Mao changes began gradually.

In North Korea, the middle ranks of the military will need to be assured that they can morph into money-making managers. They have many reasons to accept change, so long as it follows the Chinese path, ensuring that they remain an elite with a future.

Many people in the West, and some in South Korea, would love to see the sudden collapse of the Kim regime. But the governments of both China and South Korea have every interest in an orderly transition. While Beijing's direct influence is limited, China, with its long and porous border with North Korea, will put its weight and money behind any outcome that avoids chaos and floods of refugees.

Indeed, Beijing might even take on an informal protector status, helping Pyongyang to keep order and provide support for the new regime. That would infuriate Seoul and be ill-received in Tokyo, Washington and Moscow. But it would avoid chaos and effectively put an end to Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. It would also make re-unification with the South even more difficult. But knowing the strength of Korean nationalism on both sides of the DMZ, none of the non-Korean neighbors is likely to be worried by that.

Events are unpredictable, yet it is a reasonable assumption that a post-Kim North Korea is unlikely to move fast on economic or political reform, let alone reunification. But it also unlikely to be any worse than it is now.