I started writing this for my work blog, but they wanted something less speculative… so you get to enjoy it instead here…. tell me what you think…
Cults of Foreign Policy
The absence of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un from the national celebration of his grandfather Kim Il-Sung’s birthday on April 15th has led to speculation that Kim is in poor health. In fact, recent stories note that U.S. has come across intelligence that he has not recovered well from a recent cardiovascular surgery and was described in a CNN story as being in “grave danger.”
Should the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official name) leader’s medical condition were to be confirmed or, worse yet, to further deteriorate, the effect on relations with the North could be seismic. That is due to the nature of the North Korean government, the justification ascribed to its nuclear weapons program, and the way in which the U.S. has conducted relations with the Kim government.
Here a Kim, there a Kim…
Kim Jong-Un, currently 36 years of age, is the third of a family dynasty that first assumed power when the country was founded in 1948. He has allegedly had a number of potential family rivals executed since he rose to his current position as Supreme Leader in 2011. At present, he has three sisters and half-sisters and an older brother (Kim Jong-Chol); his other brother, Kim Jong Nam, was allegedly assassinated in 2017. As Korean society is highly patriarchal, his brother not being involved in politics, and Kim Jong Nam’s son apparently also targeted for assassination overseas in the past, there is no apparent viable rival for the position of Supreme Leader.
The Best Defense…
North Korea first tested a nuclear weapon in 2006. While estimates of its current stockpile vary, there have been regular tests of nuclear payloads and the missiles required to deliver them. Given the country’s small population (estimated at on the order of 25.5 million people in 2018) and the proximity of its primary allies China and Russia, the nuclear weapons are likely meant as a deterrent to conventional military conflict with the United States, in order to ensure the survival of the Kim family dynasty. That is consistent with the nation’s decades-long commitment to “all-fortressization,” first formulated in the early 1960s, as well as past requests made to both China and Russia (all overtures rejected) for assistance in developing nuclear weapons.
The Trump Card
The last factor that needs to be considered when contemplating how international relations might change in the wake of the Supreme Leader’s demise is how the current U.S. administration conducts foreign policy. While the State Department has taken a generally hawkish tone toward the perceived enemies of the United States (including countries subject to OFAC sanctions), President Trump has emphasized his personal powers of persuasion in trying to advance U.S. interests with both friends and foes. He has claimed good relations, as evidenced in a number of exchanges of personal letters, with the North Korean leader.
Best (and Worst) Case Scenarios
If the Supreme Leader were to pass away, the following represent a few plausible scenarios:
In Scenario One, in the absence of a plausible dynastic successor, the North Korean military assumes power. Its popular support, however, is shaky absent a crackdown on dissent, due to the North’s reliance on the Kim family’s cult of personality. Since any successor, individual or ruling junta, may not have the personal self-preservation mindset of the Kims, they may be willing to negotiate away its nuclear arsenal to improve the well-being of its citizenry, which would buy it some level of popular support. In the absence of its nuclear deterrent, the North would rely more heavily on the increasing military aggressiveness of its Chinese ally to keep the U.S. military at bay. The Trump Administration jumps at the chance to have a foreign policy win, and, in the absence of a charismatic leader for the President to appear in photo opportunities with, lets the State Department negotiate a deal that ends up, in comparison, less rigorous than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated with Iran, but which gets signed before Election Day.
Scenario Two envisions elements of the military assuming power after Kim’s demise. In response, President Trump tries to push his advantageous negotiation position (which is consistent with how he has applied pressure to other nations including Venezuela and Iran) due to his perception that the North is now weaker, absent a Kim family member at the helm. Unlike with the Kims, however, he does not attempt to charm the new leaders, and looks to other forms of pressure, such as seizing North Korean ships at sea while they are involved in sanctioned exports of coal. This, in return, causes the country’s leaders’ backs to stiffen, and the deadlocked status quo continues, more or less.
Lastly, in Scenario Three, after the funeral, after the North Korean military assumes power, they install Kim Jong Chol as a figurehead to maintain the illusion of the Kim dynasty, as well as shore up domestic support. The Trump Administration perceives this, despite intelligence to the contrary, as “business as usual” and tries to charm the new leader as it attempted to do with his brother. The success of this strategy ultimately hinges not on the President’s powers of persuasion so much as whether or not the military seizes on the opportunity to trade its nuclear program in return for longer-term control of the DPRK government, as suggested in Scenario One.
Facts are stubborn things
Other than comparatively small changes (like the quality of North Korean missile capabilities), the nature of the stalemate between North Korea and other nations has not significantly changed over the years. The goal of the North’s quest for self-preservation through nuclear weaponry is still the same as it was when it first sought to develop that capability. Yet, the varying entreaties and pressure on the DPRK has never recognized and addressed that core motivation. Similarly, Kim Jong-Un has not keyed in on President Trump’s long history of bombastic negotiation, and subsequent backing out on obligations under the agreement reached.
As qualitative as personality foibles, hidden agendas and motivations might appear, they are no less factual than the nuts and bolts of the incentives and consequences being bandied about during the the horse-trading leading up to a final agreement. Any negotiation that ignores these truths about one’s counter party is as doomed to failure as one which ignores the seemingly intractable issues that brought the parties to the table in the first place.
No matter who sits on either side of North Korea/United States negotiating table, recognizing and prioritizing these issues is more likely to bear fruit than the willfully blind status quo. The Trump Administration would be wise to consider this, regardless of Mr. Kim’s health situation.
Categories: General Information