Peninsula politics and Kim Jong-Il’s passing

One presumes China received early word about Kim Jong-Il's death, and that mutual commitments were exchanged about maintaining People’s Republic of China (PRC) backing for Pyongyang, and for the North not engaging in provocative actions. (The short-range missile test shortly after the announcement of Kim Jong-Il’s death was no doubt a “gentle” reminder that the military remains cohesive and able to act if necessary). 

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Anyone who projects a new direction for North Korea is engaging in pure speculation. Generally speaking, steady on course will be the safest policy. Perhaps different from 1994, when Kim Il Sung died and yet Pyongyang was able to proceed to conclude the Agreed Framework with the United States within three months, a firm policy direction may not be as clear at this point. 

It is possible that Pyongyang will still want to get to the Six-Party negotiating table, including by suspending the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon as it has already indicated it was willing to do, which China will no doubt encourage. But no one should be surprised if, even within a few months, we do return to the negotiating table, which does not get us very far toward meaningful progress on denuclearization. Beijing decided more than a year ago to place North Korean stability above all else on the Peninsula.  There is no reason to assume it will change its mind now. 

Quite the opposite. Indeed, maintaining domestic political stability within the North – as well as on the Peninsula – may prove to be substantial challenge over the coming months. There were presumably some who questioned Kim Jong-Il’s succession, but he had a decade and a half of experience in directing various aspects of the North Korean system. Kim Il-Sung had set a direction for talks with the United States, including on the North’s nuclear program. It is far less clear not only that policy was solidly fixed, but also that an inexperienced 28-year old can be as successful in dealing with powerful domestic forces. 

China will want to do all it can to help meet the challenge of maintaining stability. For its part, while it will want to ensure that no one mistakes the readiness of the U.S.-ROK alliance to respond to provocations, the United States has no interest in contributing to turmoil within the North.

Romberg is the director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-D.C.-based non-profit, non-partisan institution devoted to enhancing international peace and security.