The stockings were hung, the FPA bloggers had written their last posts with care and just settled down for a long winters nap (by DC standards). When out on the 38th parallel there arose such a clatter and what to our wondering eyes appear? North Korea’s little old driver, who was so lively and quick, had become suddenly sick. More rapidly than eagles his replacement came; he had a broad face and a little round belly and clutched a handful of nuclear jelly. A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, soon gave me to know I might have something to dread…
I have certainly come to view the end of the year with some degree of dread. Earthquakes, tidal waves, and a slew of other worrisome events seem to make appearances just when we think we are done with the year, and 2011 has not disappointed. The sudden death of Kim Jong-il and the rise of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor left US analysts scrambling. NYTimes correspondents astutely observed that 48 hours after Kim Jong-il died at 8:30 am on Saturday, neither South Korean nor American intelligence knew anything about the death. This is the second major intelligence failure of 2011 (remember Egypt?) and just one of many intelligence failures when it comes to US analysts keeping tabs on the goings on inside the DPRK. However, unlike the failure of US intelligence to predict the Arab Spring, I do not believe the unexpected death of Kim Jong-il and subsequent American ignorance of the event will cost US diplomacy the advantage.
The questions have been flying. Where does this leave bi-lateral negotiations for a resumption of six-party talks? Will the US continue its dialogue on food aid? What should we be hoping for in this transition? There are a number of articles, good and bad, available, which provide in-depth analysis on all these questions (here, here, and here). Yet, I believe there are some fundamental truths about the current situation in the DPRK that make complicated analysis unnecessary.
The Monday after the announcement of Jong-il’s death, reporters pelted State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland with questions about the condition of the bi-lateral nuclear negotiations. While Mrs. Nuland tactfully answered “we have not made any decisions inside the U.S. Government on that question, nor have we made any decisions inside the U.S. Government on the question of another round of U.S.-DPRK bilateral talks.”
The truth of the matter is that for probably the next six months or more, nuclear negotiations have been “over taken by events” and any talks would not only be unrealistic but dangerous. Un needs to demonstrate to the military that he is a strong leader, especially when it comes to dealing with the United States.
If Un agrees to come to the table too soon, he might be perceived as weak by military leaders and be removed from power, especially if they believe he is moving towards any of the goals the United States has in mind.
One of the best things the United States could do for stability in the region is to continue its dialogue on food aid. The citizens of the DPRK are starving and Un will be looking for a way to prove to the ruling political military elite that he can deal successfully with the United States. Getting the United States to agree to provide food aid might help solidify his grip on power. This way, Un would demonstrate that he can successfully navigate negotiations with the United States, and if the United States provides the kind of aid discussed in a recent article in the Washington Post, the people who need the food most will more than likely receive it. Additionally, this could be a bridge between the US and Un in future negotiations.
What should be we hoping for in this transition? For now, hoping for a thaw on the nuclear issue would be foolhardy. The best we can look for in the short-term is a peaceful and stable transition, keeping a good distance during North Korean mourning (read power transition here). One of the worst outcomes for the United States would be a split in governance in the DPRK between those loyal to Un and a military ruling group. In the context of a nuclear DPRK, the possibility of two groups claiming power would be a nightmare scenario. As any negotiator can tell you, if you have two groups claiming legitimacy “spoiling” becomes a major concern. “Spoiling” occurs when a group seeks to hinder, delay, or undermine negotiations while at least one other party is actively engaged in settlement. If the international community was forced to deal with a fractured DPRK, nuclear negotiations would almost certainly be subject to this type of behavior. Who controls the facilities? Who controls the scientists? Etc etc. And though it is repugnant to support a leader whose father has been “routinely described as a belligerent dictator who is not interested in the welfare of his own people, in fact has killed and jailed millions of them,” it is in the best interest for all of us that Kim Jong-un’s accession to power be peaceful, stable, and secure.