MADRID – Two days after Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader, died in a train in his country, South Korean authorities still knew nothing about it. Meanwhile, American officials seemed at a loss, with the State Department at first merely acknowledging that press reports had mentioned his death.
The South Korean and US intelligence services’ inability to pick up any sign of what had happened attests to the North Korean regime’s opaque character, but also to their own deficiencies. American planes and satellites watch North Korea day and night, and the most sensitive intelligence-gathering equipment covers the frontier between the two Koreas. Nonetheless, we know very little of that country, because all vital information is restricted to a small group of leaders obsessed with secrecy.
The leadership change is occurring at the worst possible time. It is known that Chinese leaders had hoped that Kim Jong-il would survive long enough to consolidate support among the country’s various factions for the succession of his son, Kim Jong-un.
All of the symbolic attributes of power have been transferred to Kim Jong-un – reflected in his official position in the funeral ceremonies, his presidency of the Military Commission, and his assumption of the ruling party’s highest rank – with remarkable speed. But such trappings will not make the transition process any easier for a young man of less than 30 in a society where veteran military chiefs retain so much power.
The economic situation, which is still very precarious, with many people living close to starvation, constitutes another key challenge. Two examples suffice to illustrate the impact: the price of rice has tripled while consumption of electricity is down by two-thirds from two decades ago.
My personal memories of North Korea, now almost ten years old, are of a poor and depressed country. Pyongyang, the capital, was dark and deserted, illuminated by the cavalcade taking us from the official housing to the opera house, only to return to darkness behind us. Kim Jong-il was greeted with the same fervor when he entered the opera house that today marks public mourning of his death.
My trip took place in April 2002, a somewhat optimistic time. The European Union had joined an agreement initiated by the two Koreas and the US within the Korean Energy Development Organization program, the objective being to persuade North Korea to freeze and later dismantle its nuclear program. In exchange, two light-water nuclear reactors would be built to generate electric energy, and 500,000 metric tons of oil would be supplied annually until the first reactor began operating. In turn, the EU initiated an extensive humanitarian aid project. The talks with Kim Jong-il and his collaborators seemed promising.
Unfortunately, the agreement did not last long. In 2003, North Korea abandoned the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. From that moment, all optimism was lost, until contacts were subsequently reinitiated in a complex six-party format (China, Russia, the US, Japan, and the two Koreas) that continued, with ups and downs, until the end of 2007. Since the maritime incidents of 2009 and 2010, in which North Korean forces attacked South Korean assets, there has been virtually no contact at all between the two sides.
Given North Korea’s behavior over the last decade, the sudden change of leadership increases the threat of unexpected incidents. In order to limit the risk, it is essential to keep relations with China as transparent as possible. It is China that has the most direct contact with North Korea, and that could best catalyze resumption of the six-party talks.
China recognizes that North Korea cannot continue in its present form, and would like to see its leaders transform the economy without undertaking substantial political change. Is that possible? Could it be done quickly enough to boost other regional players’ confidence that the country’s evolution will be predictable?
For China, problems are judged according to the country’s own history and from the standpoint of domestic policy – all the more so the closer the problem is to its borders. For the West, especially the US, every problem should have a solution within a finite period of time. While the US breaks down problems and tries to find solutions for each part, China considers political problems unhurriedly, as an extended process that might have no resolution.
Beyond the six-party talks, it is necessary to create a framework from which a cooperative dialogue between the US and China might emerge. In the case of Korea – as Christopher Hill, one of the most effective US negotiators on these matters, remembers – the US should make it clear that no possible solution for the divided peninsula would mean a strategic loss for China. After the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953, the 38th parallel was established as the limit for US forces’ presence; the importance of that war for China should not be forgotten.
This approach could be one way to stabilize the region during this period of heightened uncertainty. There might be others. The ongoing opening in Myanmar (Burma) shows that potentially significant political change does not need to be accompanied by regional instability. In the case of North Korea, where nuclear arms are in play, it cannot afford to be.