SEOUL – Korea is a unique country. The Cold War ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and is now remembered only as history to most people around the world. The Korean Peninsula, however, remains divided along ideological lines, and the two Koreas co-exist as living remnants of the Cold War. A total of almost 1.5 million young soldiers from both North and South Korea face off against each across the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone.
Events and structural forces, however, have affected and changed the nature of the North Korean system since 1991. The sudden discontinuation of the supply of petroleum and natural resources from Russia in the early 1990’s, the failure of the centrally-planned economy, and the subsequent massive famine in the mid-1990’s left North Korea’s leaders no alternative but to tolerate informal market activities. Nowadays, every North Korean seems to like money and know its value.
The engagement policy pursued by the South Korean government in recent years also contributed to changes in North Koreans’ perceptions of the outside world and of their own abject economic situation. In these desperate circumstances, North Korea’s leaders clung to their strategy of developing nuclear weapons as a last resort to defend the security of their regime.
But, regardless of whether the nuclear issue is resolved, the spread of market forces in North Korea will continue to change every aspect of life there in the coming years. Nobody yet knows what the political consequences of these economic changes will be.
So, even before the recent reports of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s health problems, North Korea was already a country marked by growing uncertainty. Nevertheless, the reports about Kim’s ill health hit like a rude wake-up call about the precarious nature of conditions in North Korea. The “Dear Leader’s” declining health will add even more uncertainty and may cause international instability across East Asia.
For example, Kim Il Sung groomed his son Kim Jong-il as his successor for about two decades before the younger Kim took power in 1994. Kim Jong-il, however, has not yet even chosen his successor. Indeed, it is widely expected that a new system of collective leadership will emerge if Kim Jong-il is incapacitated.
The problem is that North Korea has no experience with collective leadership. In the last six decades, all power has been concentrated in the hands of one person. One-man rule has been so completely embedded in North Korea’s political culture and system that it is difficult to expect collective leadership to succeed. Thus, some type of power struggle, rather like what occurred in the Soviet Union following Stalin’s death, may invariably follow a brief period of collective rule.
The dilemma for the world is that major decisions will have to be made during this period of instability. Will the North’s would-be leaders be able to manage the country’s stock of nuclear weapons responsibly and safely without transferring a few of them abroad, much less respond to international pressure to dismantle them in a reasonable and flexible manner?
Over the past decade, Kim Jong-il has emphasized the importance of his military-first policy. As a result, the army will be dominant in decision making on important issues like nuclear negotiations. But the problem with military rule is a tendency toward incomplete understanding of the implications of political decisions – a problem that will be aggravated further by collective leadership.
Under a North Korean collective leadership dominated by the military, the power of the country’s economic bureaucrats will be marginal, at best. This may lead to suppression of pressure from below for economic reform and opening. As a result, the economy may worsen and political instability increase. In such a difficult domestic situation, North Korea’s leaders may adopt more hostile policies to obtain economic aid from both South Korea and the United States.
Recently, South Korea’s government made it clear that it would continue to engage North Korea, but in a more principled way than had previous administrations. This reflects a hardening of South Korean public opinion, following North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006. As a result of this policy shift – and the recent killing of a South Korean tourist in North Korea’s Kumgang Mountains – official dialogue between North and South has stopped for the past several months.
International relations in northeast Asia will become more subtle and unstable as the Kim Jong-il era ends. After six turbulent but somewhat predictable decades, we may be entering into a new era of greater turbulence but less predictability on the Korean Peninsula.