Yet more uncertainty

This year has already seen the birth of the Arab Spring, death of Osama bin Laden, the Japanese earthquake,implosion of the eurozone and a near US default. While the first two of these disruptions have almost certainly been for the better, you might still be forgiven for thinking that 2011 has thrown up quite enough game-changing surprises for one year, thank you very much. After all, it’s mid-December – what more could possibly happen?

But the second this thought crosses your mind, Kim Jong-il goes and snuffs it.

So now we have even more uncertainty, this time involving a potential military face-off on the Korean peninsula with the US and China allied to opposing sides. Superb.

At the root of all the jitters is the apparent weak position of Kim Jong-eun, Kim Jong-il’s son and named successor. Victor Cha lays out the crucial points in today’s FT rather nicely:

  • Kim Jong-eun, just 28, has only had 3 years to prepare for leadership, and hasn’t had time to establish the necessary networks to secure his power
  • Nor has he had time to develop an ideology to associate with his rise to power
  • Kim Jong-il’s sister, who was meant to be one of the elders that could strengthen his position among the ruling elite, is reportedly ill as well
  • The military do not believe Kim Jong-eun is credible, as manifested in their disdain at him being promoted to a 4-star general without ever having served in the military
  • The political vacuum leaves open questions as to what North Korea will do with its considerable military forces – Kim might become increasingly antagonistic towards foreign powers in order to unite his country behin him; or power might fall into the hands of extremist anti-American generals
  • painstaking US negotiations with North Korea on food aid and prisoners of war – a prelude to returning to negotiations on denuclearisation – have effectively been nullified

In this context what can the world, particularly the US and China, do? Nothing, apparently, except stay on high alert and see how things pan out. Trying to contact the new leader could destabilise the situation further – any links (perceived or real) with the US would undermine his domestic position even further.  Above all, China and the US must coordinate their actions and make sure they are working from the same information as they try to decipher what comes out of Pyongyang. With the US elections and Chinese leadership succession, both countries are about to enter a period of intense domestic political upheaval. The last thing either of them want is to add to these burdens – and those of a bleak global economic outlook – through dangerous geopolitical  misunderstandings.

Bring on 2012.

International Affairs & Security