The Call

North Korea: The next generation

North Korea: The next generation

Today, we turn to risk #5 in our series of posts on Eurasia Group’s Top Risks for 2012 and answer the most common questions we’ve gotten about it.

Here’s a summary:

North Korea: Implosion or explosion? North Korea recently became the world’s first nuclear-­armed power without a clear leader, and competition and uncertainty within the ruling elite pose significant risks for East Asia in 2012. The secretive nature of the regime makes the likeliest threat — belligerent military action or substantial domestic instability — less predictable and much more worrisome.

Q- Is Kim Jong-Un really in charge in North Korea?

A- There’s always been a clear limit on what outsiders know about how the North Korean elite makes decisions. That’s still the case. But there are plenty of reasons to doubt that this political novice is fully in charge. He hasn’t had much time to prepare for his new job. His grandfather Kim Il-sung brought his father, Kim Jong-Il, gradually into power over more than 20 years. Kim Jong-Il inherited the keys to the kingdom in 1994 at the age of 53. The preparation of 28-year-old Kim Jong-Un began only recently as it became apparent that Kim Jong-Il’s health was failing.

For the moment, the regime appears stable. Kim Jong-­Il’s family and entourage — the so-­called guardians –look to have firm control of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party and the Korean People’s Army. The country’s military continues to serve as guarantor of North Korea’s baseline security. In the two years before his death, Kim Jong­-Il positioned his brother­-in-­law and the regime’s previous number two, Jang Sung-­Taek, as regent for his son. Jang is believed to have strong personal ties with senior military officials, and he’ll probably hold considerable power — at least until Kim Jung-­Un can earn the confidence of the country’s ruling elite. If Kim can’t consolidate power, the guardians may push for another leader to ensure the survival of the regime. But for the moment, it’s probably some combination of Kim Jong-Un’s status, Jang Sung-­Taek’s resourcefulness, and the military’s authority that gives the regime whatever cohesion it now has.

Q- Why can’t this arrangement last indefinitely?

A- The steady deterioration of North Korea’s economy and infrastructure over several decades, particularly outside the capital, ensures that this new generation of leaders will have less political capital and a less sure popular mandate than their predecessors. Conflicts are likely to develop within the elite as rivals and factions compete behind the scenes for power and personal survival. There is evidence that, once he knew he was ill, Kim Jong-­Il tried to sideline as many as possible of his son’s potential rivals. In fact, there were a suspicious number of fatal automobile accidents involving senior officials over the past two years — all the more striking given how little traffic there is in the country. Some officials still in power probably wonder how long they can remain in favor and could move to protect themselves. It’s also unclear what role Kim Kyung-­Hee, Kim Jong-­Il’s sister and Jang Sung-­Taek’s wife, might play in coming months.

Q- It seems clear that there’s a threat of aggressive action from North Korea, since they’ve stirred up trouble many times before. There’s also always the risk that the government will collapse. That could create a refugee crisis and a scramble for control of the country’s nuclear weapons that draws in outside powers. But beyond 2012, what’s the long-term risk for North Korea and its neighbors?

A- The DPRK has defied predictions of collapse for decades, mainly because China and South Korea have always been willing to bail the country out to avoid another war on the peninsula and to prevent North Koreans from starving. Yes, there is the risk that North Korea might use its nuclear capability. Even if it doesn’t, its conventional arms are powerful enough to launch a horrendous attack on the South. This is also the scenario most likely to put U.S. and Chinese forces at odds with another and in the same arena.

But the longer-term problem is that, despite the efforts of outsiders to keep things going, North Korea will one day buckle beneath the weight of its contradictions, and an international debate will begin about who will pay to clean up the mess. Studies conducted over the years suggest that the reunification of North and South Korea will prove more complicated and far more expensive than the reunion of East and West Germany. Who will pay for it? Imagine the stresses on South Korea and its economy as 20 million North Koreans come in from the cold. Today this is hypothetical, but one day it will be a very real problem.

One of the most important lessons of last year’s Arab world turmoil is that brittle authoritarian regimes can remain in place for a very long time with changes ongoing beneath the ice that outsiders don’t see until cracks emerge. Anyone could have predicted that the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria were vulnerable, but no one could have seen that the desperate act of one Tunisian vegetable vendor broadcast across the Arab world would trigger a wave of revolutions.

Given North Korea’s isolation and the regime’s secrecy, the fall of North Korea might come even more abruptly.

Next up, dark clouds over Pakistan.