Kim Jong Il’s illness changes North Korean picture
By Ian Bremmer The international conflict over North Korea’s nuclear program has been locked in stalemate for years. The United States and Japan fear that Pyongyang will sell nuclear weapons and material to rogue regimes and/or terrorist groups or stumble its way into a shooting war. China and South Korea worry that North Korea will ...
By Ian Bremmer
The international conflict over North Korea’s nuclear program has been locked in stalemate for years. The United States and Japan fear that Pyongyang will sell nuclear weapons and material to rogue regimes and/or terrorist groups or stumble its way into a shooting war. China and South Korea worry that North Korea will collapse, flooding Chinese border regions with sick and starving refugees and leaving South Korea with a reunification project that will cost a fortune and last a generation. This problem has allowed Kim Jong Il to periodically saber-rattle his way into fresh supplies of cash, food, and fuel. It’s all been entirely predictable.
But the Dear Leader’s illness has changed the game. His government has been unusually belligerent lately, even by North Korean standards. Following the latest missile tests, they haven’t made new demands for talks or aid and insist they will not return to six-party talks until others at the table accept North Korea as a nuclear state. Its government has since sentenced two US journalists to 12 years of hard labor for “hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry.” Especially provocative have been a series of cyber-attacks on US and South Korean government websites, which officials in both countries believe originated from North Korea. This more reckless North Korean behavior suggests that senior civilian and military officials, increasingly unsure how the coming power transition will go, are trying to secure some extra room for maneuver.
For the moment, North Korean actions are aimed at an internal, not an international, audience. That makes their actions less predictable — and increases the risk of accidental confrontation.
The Obama administration, aware that bad things happen when all sides are in escalation mode at the same time, has stepped back from the tougher rhetoric of weeks past. There’s been little mention of sanctions. For the imprisoned journalists, Secretary of State Clinton is now asking for mercy rather than demanding justice.
But if North Korea really is moving into political succession mode as Kim Jong Il’s health heads downhill, those who will be left behind are making a much-faster-than-planned move to shore up support for his recently designated successor, third son Kim Jong Un. It will be easier for them to maintain national unity at a time when the country stands on the brink of war.
Until the North Korean leadership feels confident enough to return to the established patterns of negotiation and extortion, its actions will remain much more difficult to predict. That problem, in turns, elevates the risk of miscalculation — and a confrontation that no one wants.
AUM JUNG-SEOK/AFP/Getty Images
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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