What course will North’s new leadership take?
Kim Jong-il is dead. This much we pretty well know for sure. This plus the revelation, which should have come as a surprise to no one, that the North Korean people are being called upon to "faithfully revere respectable comrade Kim Jong-un," this third son and chosen "Great Successor." Beyond this, we're mostly guessing.
Some guesses are pretty safe bets. The North announced that Dear Leader Kim died of a massive coronary; while others rumors are already starting ― conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this one ― I tend to believe the announced time (Saturday morning, Korea time), place (on a train for a field tour outside Pyongyang), and cause of death.
One can even buy the story that the heart attack was brought about by "physical and mental overwork." All reports had indicated that Kim was steadily recovering from his 2008 stroke and fully back at work; he did after all make multiple trips to China and Russia in the past few years. Heart attacks are nature's way of telling you to slow down!
It's also a pretty safe bet that Kim Jong-un has been accepted by the rest of the ruling elite as the official face of the new leadership, just as his father decreed. They have as much a vested interest in a stable power transition as junior Kim does; their own personal safety and survival is inextricably tied to regime survival and Kim Jong-un is the manifestation of this. It's an even safer bet that Kim will not have the degree of absolute power and influence that his father did; no next generation leader ever does, especially if he is still in his 20s and largely untested and unknown.
Where the guessing really starts is in determining who the power(s) behind the throne will be: who will be whispering in his ear and to whom he will be listening? Kim Jong-il's chosen regents ― his brother-in-law Jang Song-thaek and sister Kim Kyong-hui ― are the odds-on favorites at least initially, but how trusted Jang really is remains to be seen.
The military remains a power behind the throne but just how powerful and who speaks for the military are still not clear. As a result, no leadership picture is likely to be more over-analyzed than will be the line-up at Kim Jong-il's Dec. 29 memorial service, officiated over by Kim Jong-un. Old-time Kremlinologists will have a field day figuring out who is standing where and what it all means.
One thing we won't have to guess about is who, if anyone, will officially represent the U.S. or South Korea at the memorial service; no outside guests are being invited. This could be because the powers-that-be don't think Kim Jong-un is ready yet for foreign scrutiny. It could (but probably doesn't) mean that a serious power struggle is going on behind the scenes. Or they might just be concerned no one of importance (other than some senior Chinese official) would show up.
The real questions are what does Kim Jong-il's death mean in terms of North-South relations, the six-party talks, eventual denuclearization, and the prospects for reform? My guess is that Pyongyang had a game plan essentially in place taking them through not only the April 15 centennial anniversary of founder Kim Il-sung's birth but the U.S. and South Korean presidential elections in November and December, respectively, and that the new leadership, after a respectable pause for mourning, will proceed along that charted course.
Kim Jong-il did not choose his successors because he thought they would change direction but because he expected them to stay the course. It would be extremely bold for any new leader or leadership team to veer too far from the chosen path, at least initially.
What the chosen path really is remains anyone's guess. It likely includes another round of U.S.-DPRK talks (which otherwise would have taken place this week) and, presumably, another round of North-South dialogue, followed by the eventual resumption of six-party talks in late spring or early summer.
If rumors of a U.S. food aid for uranium enrichment freeze deal are indeed true ― this was reported in the Korean press but thus far denied officially by Washington ― then the North will likely go along with this at some point, although we should have no illusions that the best we will get is a freeze at the known facility at Yongbyon, and not at the suspected but not acknowledged additional facilities elsewhere.
While six-party talks are likely to resume at some point, their stated intent ― denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula ― will remain a pipe dream.
If the objective of the six-party talks is Korean Peninsula denuclearization and we are all convinced that the North is not going to give up its nuclear weapons anytime soon, then why go back to the negotiating table? The most direct answer is because no one has come up with a better solution acceptable to all parties.
It's also true that if you "won't buy the same horse twice" ― Washington's favorite phrase, even though most North Korean horses have been bought more than once ― then you really can't start again from scratch. There is an important framework in place that has been bought and paid for ― the September 2005 Joint Statement ― and no one wants to try to recreate (or repurchase) this agreement.
It used to be that the six-party talks were aimed at making things better (i.e., denuclearization); now the objective, should they resume, will likely be confined to keeping things from getting worse. The proper atmosphere ― the appearance of progress, even if none is actually achieved ― is also becoming more compelling, especially as election year approaches for many of the players.
There is an assertion that when the North Koreans are talking, they are not shooting at people. I'm not sure how accurate that assumption actually is, but it's clear that ever since the North's spate of bad behavior last year ― the sinking of the Cheonan and the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island ― people have been waiting for the next shoe to drop.
There is also rampant speculation that the new leadership will have to establish its bona fides by doing something aggressive. I don't buy this logic. While I understand why the South Korean and U.S. military have increased their alert status in response to Kim's death, my guess is that this would be the best time for the respective militaries to enjoy Christmas leave. The odds that the new leadership would do something provocative during the mourning period or during the transition period that follows seem particularly low.
In short, the most likely future path, at least initially, will be more of the same. The North will cautiously continue down the path laid out by Kim Jong-il, including a resumption of U.S.-DPRK and North-South dialogue, leading to a resumption of six-party talks, where they will once again attempt to get us to buy the same horses for a third or fourth time, while throwing in at least one new horse ― the already revealed portion of their uranium enrichment program ― for sale.
Over the long term, there appears to be some hope, primarily emanating from Beijing, that Kim Jong-un will, if he listens well to regent Jang Song-thaek, take North Korea down the path of Chinese-style reform. Beijing, as expected, has heaped praise on Kim Jong-il's memory and expressed unqualified support for Kim Jong-un's leadership, in part because of China's central concern over stability on the peninsula, but apparently also based on the belief that Jang is or will be a "reformer."
Who knows, this may even be true. While this could relieve the suffering of the North Korean people over time, it will do little to promote the cause of denuclearization. This will remain a long-term challenge and one that will remain a lower priority for Beijing and Pyongyang, even as it continues to drive U.S. and ROK policy.
Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at RACPacForum@cs.com.