Pity Kim Jong Un. In one day, he lost his father and inherited the worst job in the world. Yes, pity is far more appropriately bestowed on the millions of victims of his scurrilous family (think just of the one to two million North Koreans who perished during the famine of the mid-1990s), but there is no question that the new leader of North Korea finds himself in an uneasy place. As I wrote in my 2010 Foreign Affairs article, “The Once and Future Kim,” powerful forces will help Kim Jong Un consolidate his power. But the suddenness of Kim Jong Il’s death has sparked fears of instability, with dangerous implications for the peninsula, East Asia, and the world.
Writing off the Kim family would be foolish. Kim Jong Il was a skilled dictator who survived the brass-knuckle politics of an impoverished and imperiled country. The Kim family created a set of policies and bureaucracies to “coup-proof” their government, a program that sustained the regime through famine and poverty. Because of instruments of power such as intense surveillance, political prison camps, and the exile and execution of dissidents, elites know that even a whisper against Kim Jong Un (let alone actual coup attempts) would mean death for themselves and severe punishment for their families.
Still, the suddenness of Kim Jong Il’s death will destabilize the transition. Kim Jong Un’s youth is enough of a strike against him; additionally, he has had very little time to prepare for his ascent. The current succession stands in stark contrast to the previous handoff of power in North Korea: Kim Il Sung designated Kim Jong Il as heir some 15 years before the Great Leader eventually died, allowing the son to gain experience in North Korean politics and build his power within the regime. Kim Jong Un was proclaimed heir only last year. One can only imagine the teeth-grinding among the career generals when Kim Jong Il elevated his son to four-star general despite his total lack of military experience.
But will Kim Jong Un actually be in charge? Even before his father’s death, reports suggested that the young Kim would have a regent — his powerful uncle Jang Song Taek. Such an arrangement, ripe for jealousy, suspicion, and resentment, holds the seeds of a power struggle. A few days into the transition, the political arrangements appear even more precarious: recent reports suggest that North Korea might be ruled by a triumvirate of uncle, nephew, and military. Had Kim Jong Il survived another decade, he could have given his son full control, but he died too early. The tools of authoritarian control so carefully wielded by Kim’s forebears may in the end get Kim Jong Un through this dangerous juncture. But transition couldn’t have happened in a worse way.
A power struggle in Pyongyang could unleash terrible instability. The government provides its malnourished citizens with about half of their food; if the government were to collapse, government-provided food and health services would cease, and the population would rapidly face the prospect of starvation. Food shortages, coupled with the possibility of civil war, could unleash a huge refugee flow. If refugees begin streaming across Chinese and other borders, if neighbors see anarchy and mass starvation developing in North Korea, and if control over weapons of mass destruction appears uncertain, other countries (likely China, South Korea, and the United States) may intervene to secure the borders, provide humanitarian relief, and secure Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
As the RAND corporation analyst Bruce W. Bennett and I have argued, the challenge of caring for 20 million desperate North Koreans while searching for the regime’s nuclear material would be daunting. Our model showed that, even assuming a fairly benign collapse scenario, such operations could require upward of 300,000 troops.
Worse, if these operations were conducted in an uncoordinated fashion — that is, if China unilaterally sent in troops to search for WMD, and the United States and South Korea’s Combined Forces Command (CFC) did the same — the chaos could lead to misperception and even conflict between CFC and Chinese forces. And there is no guarantee that North Korea’s hundreds of suspected nuclear sites could be secured before nuclear material leaked out.
Meeting after Kim Jong Il’s death, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Japanese foreign minister declared their shared desire for “peace and stability” on the Korean peninsula. This position is understandable given the specter of chaos described above; at the same time, the uncomfortable reality is that rooting for a stable transition of power to Kim Jong Un means rooting for the continuation of arguably the most despicable government on earth.