Don’t ignore North Korea

Kim Jong Il has been dead eight weeks, and commentators are still treating his successor, Kim Jong Un, as if he’s the latest celebrity teen star. But there’s more at stake than speculation over the young Kim’s staying power. Despite the understandable preoccupation with Iran and the specter of a European economic collapse, we are about to repeat past mistakes by ignoring a rogue state that already possesses nuclear weapons. This failure to be more proactive is likely to end in a different kind of bad news — another nuclear test.

Despite our best efforts, we remain woefully in the dark about the internal leadership dynamics of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This is particularly true for Kim Jong Un. Many assessments of the young Kim rely on anecdotes and hearsay. Given this lack of knowledge, it would be folly to try to steer North Korea’s leadership transition, especially as China is firmly in Kim Jong Un’s court. If the United States, Republic of Korea (ROK) or Japan were to intervene, the unintended consequences could be profound, with a misstep erupting into an ugly scenario pitting a Beijing-backed faction against one backed by the United States, South Korea and Japan.

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Just as a policy of fostering regime change is not tenable, a seemingly reasonable wait-and-see/status quo approach is also inadequate. It could sow the seeds for yet another nuclear test in 2013, which could lead to engineering advances that allow the totalitarian North to produce smaller (and more) nuclear warheads. And what better way for a determined North Korea to “market” its nuclear know-how for export?

Here’s why a test is likely: 

First, there is a military imperative. Technically, a follow-on test is the next logical step for North Korea’s plutonium-based nuclear weapons program — the North’s quickest route to a deliverable warhead. The inherent insecurity of North Korea exacerbated by Kim Jong Il’s sudden passing creates a greater incentive for the military to push forward. The first test was driven by the DPRK’s need to prove that it had a viable nuclear deterrent; the partial failure of the first test made the successful second test inevitable.

Second, with upcoming presidential elections in South Korea and the United States, policy inertia will take over in 2012. North Korea is likely to refrain from provocative behavior. Therefore, little will be done to address the North’s nukes. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un will have had a year to consolidate power, gain greater confidence in his new role and cultivate better ties with Beijing.

Third, it is almost certain that North Korea’s high expectations for an ROK policy change in 2013 will not be met. If the ruling party wins, it will continue a hardline policy of no aid to the DPRK. If the opposition party wins, a progressive government will be constrained as to how forward it can be and be arguably a more challenging adversary for the North than the conservatives.

Fourth, Kim Jong Un will be under great pressure to demonstrate bold leadership, especially to key constituencies including the military and China. In 2012 this could mean a surprise on the political or economic front. If pressed too hard or ignored in 2013, it also could mean an emboldened — or desperate — Kim Jong Un ordering a nuclear test.

The only restraint on North Korean action is China. China could probably stop a nuclear test, but to date it has shown no inclination to do so. China did virtually nothing when North Korea conducted its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. The DPRK could decide that China’s response would be the same as in the past, and ironically, determine that China would somehow give Kim Jong Un a “pass” — allowing for an early miscalculation or two.

In the 1990s, many were sure Kim Jong Il was an incompetent playboy and the North would collapse. The world was stunned when North Korea twice tested a nuclear weapon, sunk a South Korean naval vessel and attacked South Korea, killing soldiers and civilians. Rather than reading tea leaves about the future, we need a solid grip on the present. Let’s focus on the real and urgent, seriously probing North Korea’s new leadership for facts — and prevent yet another nuclear test.

Yun is executive director of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. He previously was involved in diplomatic efforts toward North Korea at the State Department, from 1994 to 2001.