A US overture now may find welcome in Pyongyang
As an unpredictable nuclear power thrashes out a succession strategy for life after Kim Jong-il, the international community grows nervous. But the United States and its allies have a rare opportunity to present North Korea with an alternative to the self-destructive status quo.
How the formation of a new regime will play out is a matter of wild speculation. The political system allows tremendous scope for a few individuals holding strategic positions in the Worker's Party of Korea and the National Defence Commission to take decisions that have major ramifications. Whether Kim's anointed successor, his youngest son Kim Jong-un, will be able to assert his authority, and for how long, remains to be seen.
There is no guarantee that the man Kim Jong-il appointed to safeguard a smooth succession for his son will do as Kim had intended. Jang Song-thaek, deputy head of the National Defence Commission, the highest organ of power, may be Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law and the chosen 'regent', but he is now in a position to play his own game.
Dynastic succession at a time when the country has long suffered great privations is not popular. Whether Kim Jong-un will be able to consolidate his leadership depends in part on how he manages relations with the other major power holders.
The US can do nothing to shape the actions of young Kim but there is considerable scope for it to influence internal debates among the leaders in Pyongyang.
Once North Korea has agreed on immediate arrangements for the formal succession, it has two clear-cut options in deciding the country's future direction. Status quo of a kind must be the default option. However, it is unlikely to be sustainable unless Kim Jong-un can secure the loyalty of powerful men several decades older in a culture that still reveres age, seniority and experience. He may also need an exceptionally mild winter and a very supportive China to avoid worsening famine.
The obvious alternative is for North Korea to follow China's path and introduce reforms to rejuvenate the economy without placing the party's monopoly of power at risk. Beijing will be on hand to help, since it has long been its policy to encourage North Korea to adopt its development model.
Yet an overdependence on China carries serious risks for North Korea. Since the collapse in 2009 of the six-party talks geared towards Korean disarmament, bilateral trade between China and North Korea has soared.
But China's growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region is as unsettling to North Korea as it is to its other neighbours. North Korean unease revolves around China's historical claim to the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, which covers most of present-day North Korea and extends well into Chinese territory. North Korea understandably fears that a territorial claim could be used as a bargaining chip by China in return for the provision of continued economic and political support.
The US must ensure that the North Korean leadership is aware of a third option: to trade its nuclear weapons programme for American-led support for the adoption of a modified Chinese model. This will involve going way beyond the resumption of the six-party talks, though the reopening of talks could act as the first concrete step.
There is no need for the US to exclude China in its efforts. Indeed, Chinese support and participation should be welcomed. By including the Chinese, the US will reassure the North Koreans that considering this option reduces their near-exclusive dependence on China without requiring them to forsake Chinese support and goodwill.
The dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme will have to be a carefully calibrated process. The level of mistrust on all sides is too great for a swift breakthrough. But the offer of a peace treaty and support for reform in return for a UN programme to suspend North Korea's uranium enrichment ambitions should at least be made.
It may or may not have the desired impact. But making this option available may alter the course of the debates inside Pyongyang. It is a bet worth making.
Professor Steve Tsang is the director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham