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Kim Jong-un, Reformer? The Promise and Peril of North Korea’s Succession Crisis

The death of Kim Jong-Il is not only an opportunity to reflect on the manifest crimes he committed against the people of North Korea, but also to consider just how heavily his devious regime now weighs in calculations about international security. The uncertain future of the Hermit Kingdom is a matter of especially grave importance to the five countries—the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—that have intermittently engaged with it since 2003 in the Six-Party Talks. It’s not yet clear how these countries will respond to the ongoing succession crisis, but what’s impossible to deny is that, in the coming months, their actions—and the actions of the new leaders in Pyongyang—will resonate far beyond the Korean peninsula.

One major question is whether the United States and China will begin to closely cooperate, or whether the tensions between the two countries will continue to be a defining issue in the region. Unfortunately, the optimistic spirit that seemed to pervade the U.S.-Sino relationship in the years between 2006 and 2008 seems unlikely to return anytime soon. Yes, the Obama administration has signaled repeatedly that, should North Korea be willing to change direction, it is prepared to intensify its involvement in the Six-Party Talks—involvement that would demand a deepening of Washington’s diplomatic relationship with Beijing. But for Chinese leaders, the Six-Party framework is no longer a high priority.

Instead, they are implacably determined to build on bilateral momentum with the North’s leadership. Indeed, China has made close ties with Pyongyang a high priority in recent years—especially so after cooperation with the Obama administration grew more problematic in 2009—precisely in order to have influence over this type of succession process. It is exceedingly unlikely that Beijing will now be amenable to allowing the Six-Party Talks to be used as a mechanism for the U.S. and South Korea to shape the North’s future. Indeed, Chinese policymakers are likely to be pushing for a succession that privileges stability over change—both in North Korea and in China itself.

Of course, that plan presumes that North Korean leaders are themselves interested in bending to China’s wishes. It seems fair to assume that Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-Il’s son and chosen successor, will have a difficult time consolidating power in the face of doubtful senior military commanders, who hold far more power than civilian leaders, and his own squabbling family. But it’s not yet clear if he will respond to those pressures by acting in a way that will please Beijing.

In terms of the survival of his regime, the least perilous short-term option for Kim Jong-un is, in fact, to expand economic and political ties with China, while launching modest reforms to capitalize on newly designated special economic zones. But fear of irreversible dependence on China may give some North Korean leaders pause. A riskier short-term option for North Korea—though one that may be more sustainable in the long-term—would be to balance China’s influence with policies that regain the trust of South Korea and rekindle the prospect of multilateral projects with the West and the other participants in the Six-Party Talks. The likelihood that North Korea will pursue that route is perhaps bolstered by the fact that Pyongyang is planning on coordinating a major celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the deceased founder of the regime, on April 15 of next year. In the run-up to that celebration, North Korea has been flattering itself as a “powerful and prosperous” nation—but any hopes of achieving such prosperity depend on broadening the regime’s ties with the outside world.

And in truth, if the North Korean regime ventured to make this kind of shift in the wake of the death of its longtime hardline leader, it would have plenty of precedents. After Stalin died, Khrushchev consolidated power but also launched reforms aimed at “peaceful coexistence” with the West. After Mao died, Deng Xiaoping consolidated power, but also turned China in the direction of “reform and the open door.” There would certainly be a receptive audience for any such message emanating from North Korea: The West, as well as South Korea, would be eager to greet reformist leaders in Pyongyang with a sympathetic hearing.

What’s important to realize is that a drawn-out succession process favors divisive forces throughout the region. Not only will it favor hardliners in North Korea—it will also give credence to the leaders in China who are distrustful of the United States, as well as the policymakers in South Korea and Japan who are pushing to adopt a tougher posture against Pyongyang. In short, a drawn-out process would make the region, and the world, more dangerous. Above all, the existing, not inconsiderable, tensions between the world’s major powers, China and the United States, would be exacerbated. At a time of continued global economic turmoil, that could prove disastrous in more ways than one.

Gilbert Rozman is the Musgrave Professor of Sociology at Princeton University.