The passing of Kim Jong Il has raised questions about the future of North Korea under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, the late leader’s 27-year old son. Kim Jong Un’s résumé includes a Swiss education and a slew of powerful posts in the North Korean leadership that suggests he is going to be his father’s successor. However, if North Korea is going to survive, Kim Jong Un must push the country towards reintegration with the global system and reunification with South Korea later this century.
The people of the two Koreas comprise the same ethnic, cultural, and linguistic group, divided politically and ideologically since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Looking at the precedent of East and West Germany, such political and ideological divisions cannot last long-term; neither can states that pursue a course of existence outside the international order. For these reasons, it is in North Korea’s interest to change its course from a combative foreign policy to one of peace and conciliation to better serve its external and internal aims.
The first question concerns economic development. It is no secret that North Korea may be one of the most militarized countries in the world, but it is also one of the poorest, with chronic social problems. The ghost of famine is ever-present. It is not inconceivable that the change in leadership might usher a change in thinking that will see North Korea take on the path China did after Mao’s death in 1976, and similarly to the steps Cuba is taking in allowing private property and opening its economy to the world very gradually. This kind of policy change will certainly add to the legitimacy of the regime in the eye of the public to prevent social unrest, if politically it might remain as repressive as ever. Gradual economic liberalization will also contribute to stability on the peninsula because increased economic contacts will make hawkish foreign policies harder to carry out.
North Korea’s nuclear program and excessive militarization will remain contentious issues under the new regime as well, and Kim Jong Un’s consolidation of power over the state apparatus may go through a stage of heightened assertiveness in foreign policy that could threaten to destabilize regional balances. Pyongyang’s stance will not likely change under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, but the opening of economic relations may potentially allow enough flexibility in foreign policy to establish nuclear security guarantees with North Korea in the context of the Non-Proliferation Treaty or on a multilateral basis, as an extension of the existing format of six-party talks. That is, it is imperative to move beyond disarmament talks and accept North Korea as a member of the global nuclear club.
The death of Kim Jong Il need not be seen as a great shock to the international system, regionally or globally, or produce unnecessary hype about the succession and speculating about the directions it can take. Rather, the pragmatic approach for Pyongyang, under Kim Jong Un, would be to go towards the gradual reintroduction of North Korea into the international system, with gradual economic opening with a long-term perspective of re-unification with South Korea.
The reason is simple – all conflicts must come to an end, and peace is always preferable to war.
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