Monday, March 29, 2010

N. Korea in a state of emergency again?

Recently, the mass media has reported that a crisis situation in North Korea is looming again. The reports are based on unconfirmed information that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may not live beyond 2013 and the United States, South Korea and China will soon meet to discuss the emergency situation likely to follow his death.

These reports are reminiscent of the aftermath of Kim Il-sung's sudden death in 1994 and the subsequent development of U.S.-North Korea nuclear negotiations and the conclusion of the Geneva Framework Agreement. Some speculated at that time that the U.S. made significant concessions to North Korea, believing that the North Korean regime would soon collapse, then the North Korean nuclear weapons facilities would be dismantled and the light-water reactors provided for the North could be taken over by South Korea.

Some North Korea specialists warn that even if such reports are correct and the South Korean and U.S. government authorities have been preparing for such an emergency, the mass media and both government authorities should not talk about the issue openly. In order to understand the nature of the crisis situation, the term crisis situation needs to be clearly defined. Otherwise, we won't be able to tell whether the North is faced with a crisis or formulate the right strategy.

The "crisis situation" can be defined broadly or narrowly. One scenario is that following the North Korean leader's death or incapacitation, a single person (his son, Kim Jong-eun, or somebody else) or a collective leadership (composed of both the party and military elites) takes over power. These two leaderships will preserve the Kim Jong-il system, a totalitarian autocracy.

The second scenario is that after Kim's death, one person or a collective leadership (same as above) will take over power, and both leaderships will abandon the Kim jong-il regime to seek a more democratic one and conciliatory policy toward the West and South Korea.

The final scenario is that after Kim Jong-il's death, the North Korean regime collapses and the entire nation falls into chaos. The broad definition encompasses these three scenarios, while the narrow definition includes only the third. The mass media and U.S. government authorities seem to identify the crisis situation in North Korea with the third outcome. The most desirable scenario for South Korea and the U.S. is the second, while the worst is the third. In terms of feasibility, the first scenario is most likely. If the third scenario becomes a reality, the North Korean nuclear issue could become extremely problematic.

It is said that South Korea and the U.S. have a plan to deal with North Korea's weapons of mass destruction. However, some serious questions need to be addressed. Do they need the authorization of the U.N. for their intervention in the North Korean crisis? Can casus belli be invoked in this situation? Who should take care of North Korea's WMDs? - The U.S. alone? The U.S. and South Korea jointly? The U.S., South Korea and China together or the U.N. Command alone?

If the first scenario plays out, the status quo in the Korean peninsula is likely to continue, and the North Korean nuclear issue will remain unresolved. The reason why the first scenario is most feasible is that the Kim Jong-il system, which is the continuation of the Kim Il-sung system, is firmly established in North Korea and no organized opposition, military or civilian, is possible in such a totalitarian autocracy. In other words, the North Korean regime is similar to the Cuban regime, not the Ceausescu regime of Rumania.

Another point to be made in this connection is that state collapse, regime collapse, regime change and government change need to be distinguished. States rarely collapse; they die hard. The first scenario belongs to the category of government change (soft landing); the second, that of regime change; and the third, that of regime collapse (hard landing).

The North Korean nuclear issue can provide an opportunity to make the second scenario a reality. If North Korea and the U.S. swap the denuclearization of North Korea with the security guarantee of North Korea simultaneously, North Korea is likely to abandon its nuclear programs. As the former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said, there is no reason why the U.S. cannot give security guarantees to North Korea as the latter requests.

The word "simultaneously" does not mean "at the same time" in this usage. The dismantlement process and the verification process can hardly be implemented at the same time, just as the U.S. recognition of North Korea, lifting of all the U.S. and U.N. economic sanctions and the U.S.-North Korea peace treaty cannot be implemented at the same time. A carefully planned sequential implementation schedule should be drawn up and the wordings and expressions of the agreement should be clear and unmistakable. Both sides have often argued over the wordings and accused each other of using the ambiguity for the purpose of derailing the negotiation process or of gaining more concessions from the other side.

The North Korean regime has been able to preserve the Kim Jong-il system since the death of Kim Il-sung by carefully balancing the "rogue state" status and the "failed state" status because the North Korean leadership knows that if it tries to get out of one of them, it will risk its political system. Ironically, the U.S. efforts to transform North Korea into a normal state for the last 15 years have helped the North Korean regime survive.

Park Sang-seek is a professor at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University. - Ed.

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