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Managing North Korea’s Collapse

LOS ANGELES – In the last few months, North Korea has again displayed remarkable temerity. First, the regime threatened to conduct more nuclear tests if the United Nations does not withdraw its recommendation to prosecute the country’s leaders for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. Moreover, US officials claim that the regime mounted a clandestine cyber attack on Sony Pictures, allegedly over objections to “The Interview,” a slapstick movie premised on an assassination attempt against North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Then, in yet another melodramatic twist, Kim offered in his New Year’s address to resume talks with South Korea.

The Kim regime’s actions obviously merit consideration. But they should not divert attention from the real risks on the Korean Peninsula: Kim’s uncertain grip on power and the dangers that could be unleashed should his regime fall apart. Indeed, none of the region’s key strategic players – China, the United States, and South Korea – seem to be adequately prepared for such a scenario.

That needs to change. Crucially, the long-standing presumption that the US should take the lead in responding to what happens in North Korea also needs to be reconsidered.

The North’s behavior almost certainly reflects mounting turmoil among the elite. For more than a year, the regime has been carrying out a purge of high-level officials, beginning with the execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Taek, in 2013. Subsequent executions of Jang’s entourage and advisers, the recall of Jang’s associates from posts abroad, and the attempted kidnapping in France of the son of one of his assistants attest to the level of alarm in Kim’s inner circle. The elevation of Kim’s inexperienced 27-year-old sister, Kim Yo-jong, to a senior post, is another indication of growing anxiety.