End-of-a-Lifetime Chance

North Korea declared yesterday that the era of Kim Jong Un, third son of deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, had officially begun. Since state television announced the former leader’s death on Monday (Sunday U.S. time), a group of senior North Korean government officials has stepped in to manage the succession of power, but the country will remain vulnerable as the inexperienced leader tries to maintain the country's precarious position on the world stage.

Ironically, North Korea’s vulnerability has for decades contributed to its sustainability, allowing it to play off the anxieties and interests of its neighbors. Even as the region's other powers—Russia, China, South Korea, Japan—wish the intractable North Korea problem would go away, their fear that a collapse would destabilize the region has led them to deal with North Korea with kid gloves. As the country enters a renewed period of uncertainty, tensions between U.S.-allied regional powers and China will likely deepen, in particular with respect to the question of Korean reunification—a long-sought dream on the peninsula.
While the government of China rhetorically supports Korean reunification, it strongly prefers the status quo to the prospect of a unified, democratic Korea allied to the United States; China’s long-term objective is to ensure that any future strategic developments in the area do not disadvantage the country either politically or militarily. Because of this, China has been willing to support the North in recent years—for instance, by blocking South Korean efforts at the United Nations to hold North Korea accountable for its provocations—despite the considerable material and reputational costs to China. Given China’s concerns about instability and North Korea’s vulnerability during a period of leadership succession, it is likely to increase its financial and material contributions to the North as a safeguard against political instability in the post-Kim Jong Il era. This, of course, will only heighten South Korean suspicions that China intends to keep Korea divided.
As a general rule, South Koreans view the division of the Korean peninsula as a historical anomaly, an instance of victimization at the hands of larger powers. South Koreans already fear that North Korea’s economic dependency on China has given it a de facto veto over the long-cherished national dream of Korean reunification. But these views also explain why the Northern Korean government, which strongly opposes reunification, continues to view South Korea as its largest threat to regime survival.  This makes the management of inter-Korean tensions one of the most sensitive issues on both sides.  For this reason South Korean government will want to show efforts to ease North Korea’s acute sense of vulnerability at this critical moment of transition or risk a costly backlash.
The United States stands with South Korea in support of Korean unification on democratic and market economic terms, as affirmed in the 2009 U.S.-Korea Joint Vision Statement.  This statement has the added virtue of addressing Japan’s historical fear that Korea could become a security threat if the peninsula were dominated by Chinese influence.  But the main U.S. security priority remains denuclearization.  The prospect of North Korean instability has unsettling implications for proliferation, especially if North Korea’s leadership becomes desperate or even loses control over its own nuclear assets in the event of an unstable political transition. 
North Korea’s transition can be a moment of opportunity for the United States.  First, the United States should attempt to create a new decision point for North Korea’s vulnerable regime as it relates to its pursuit of nuclear weapons and prospects for economic stability through reform.  Even if it is a longshot, the United States should provide North Korea’s new leaders with an opening to grasp reform and denuclearization as a means by which to pursue its survival and transformation.  Second, the United States should pursue cooperation with China in managing a stable and gradual transformation in North Korea that may lead to Korean unification, while at the same time preserving U.S. regional leadership through close alliance coordination with South Korea and Japan. This approach offers the best chance of stabilizing the peninsula at the lowest cost while defusing the apparent contradiction between Chinese and South Korean/American visions for the future.

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