The passing of North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il on Dec. 18 aroused much fear among the international community about potential provocative behaviors from a nuclear-armed, hunger-stricken North Korea bidding farewell to its Dear Leader. While his father became the Supreme Leader when he was 53, successor Kim Jong-un is believed to be only in his late twenties, though his recognition by the various factions in the North Korean political elite circle is highly questionable. Political instability inside North Korea is likely to lead to nuclear use when the North perceives itself as vulnerable to foreign powers. Despite potential risks on the Korean peninsula, the leadership transition may be more stable than many would think. The United States should be prepared to explore the upside opportunities. The internal change within the leadership provides a rare window of opportunity for U.S. re-engagement with North Korea on denuclearization talks, which can be aided by China.
The rushed leadership transition from Kim Jong-il to his youngest son Kim Jong-un is taking place at the worst time possible. If Kim Jong-il had survived until the end of 2012, his son would have better consolidated support from the country’s various factions. In a country like North Korea, where politics is nearly all about competition for control of the center instead of competition against the center, Kim Jong-un — as successor-in-training for merely two years — may risk losing his leadership role.
Fortunately for Kim Jong-un, China is willing to back his leadership and to encourage a stable transition. Shortly after Kim Jong-il’s death, Chinese president Hu Jintao paid a visit to the North Korean embassy in Beijing to express his support for Kim Jong-un. This is a crucial signal to the North Koreans, who can rest assured that substantial Chinese aid would continue coming in under the leadership of Kim Jong-un and that it would be extremely costly for potential rebels to seize the reins.
Knowing that the nuclear-armed North Korean regime will have a certain degree of staying power, Washington needs to get serious about drafting and implementing a sound policy to manage the North Korea challenge after Kim Jong-il. For the past two decades, U.S. administrations have largely followed the lion-lamb rule: they come in like a lion ready to demonstrate Washington’s resolve, but leave like a lamb getting little done. The Obama administration adopted the strategy of “strategic patience,” which in essence amounts to ignorance of North Korea in favor of other foreign policy priorities. Though eager to establish relations with the U.S. as expressed in the 2010 annual joint New Year’s Day editorial in Pyongyang’s newspapers, North Korea has been adamant about building its nuclear capabilities, which is closely related to the country’s distinct ideology. The juche ideology, introduced by North Korea’s founding father Kim Il-sung in the mid-1950s and best characterized as “self-determination,” dictates that North Korea can obtain what it needs from the international community, but nothing about North Korea is determined by any of the factors in the international environment. The connection between the fall of Qaddafi and the abandonment of Libya’s nuclear weapons program has only served to strengthen North Korea’s resolve not to denuclearize.
However, the circumstances are different in the post-Kim Jong-il era. Re-engagement is extremely important because North Koreans have a divergent understanding from Americans as to whether friendship or joint problem-solving should come first. For North Koreans, problem-solving should be done within the framework of friendship. For Americans, however, friendship is contingent upon whether the two parties can solve problems together. The Obama administration has done right so far to not follow the advice of some hawks to provoke the dangerous and endangered North, but that is not enough. It would be a poor strategy for the U.S. to treat the current situation in North Korea as if it were “normal.” Although it still remains unclear whether the new leadership is reform-minded or not, it is at least worth the effort to extend outreach to the North and demonstrate that the U.S. has no intention to provoke the North and is serious about denuclearization.
There are signs of a window of opportunity to consider opening a new chapter in U.S.-North Korea relations: on Jan. 11, North Korea indicated that it was open to further negotiations with the U.S. A spokesperson of the North’s Foreign Ministry recently expressed that the North “will wait and see if the United States has a willingness to establish confidence.” The Obama administration should not miss this opportunity to re-engage North Korea as part of its efforts of “strategic pivot” to Asia.
The Obama administration should also consider enlisting the help of China, who shares the U.S. concern for a stable Northeast Asia. China is the only country that has leverage in North Korea, and Kim Jong-un has been formally introduced to Hu Jintao by his father and visited the Chinese capital on several occasions. It is wrong to believe that China wants to keep the North Korea nuclear problem alive and well to distress the U.S. With a regime overwhelmingly obsessed with stability to safeguard the ruling Party’s legitimacy and create a favorable environment to grow the Chinese economy, China is highly interested in preserving peace on the Korean peninsula, and denuclearization is a vital step towards this end.
The U.S., as the supreme and sole superpower in the world for at least the major part of this century, should not miss the opportunity to re-engage North Korea with the hope that the North will halt and possibly dismantle its nuclear program in the foreseeable future. This can be aided by China, who shares U.S. interest in preserving a stable Northeast Asia. Effectively managing the North Korea challenge should be seen as an important initiative of the Obama administration’s “strategic pivot” to Asia, as well as an indispensable means to preserving U.S. leadership in maintaining peace in the Asia-Pacific.
Shiran is a senior. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.