Korean Peninsula faces uncertain path out of crisis
North Korea has, once again, caught the world's attention. Kim Jong-il, North Korea's supreme leader, died reportedly of a heart attack on December 17, reminding us of the similar death of his father, Kim Il-sung in 1994.
Kim Jong-il's death, though not entirely unexpected, leaves many questions unanswered, the most important of which concerns the political succession of his 27-year-old son, Kim Jong-un.
Unlike China, the former Soviet Union or Libya, blood line represents legitimacy and guarantees minimum loyalty for a new leader in North Korea. Whether it is Jang Song-thaek (Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law who is in charge of public security), Kim Kyong-hui (Kim's sister) or leaders of the Korean People's Army, they will have to rely on the 'respectable comrade' Kim Jong-un at least for the short term. The longer-term prospects appear murky, however.
An orderly transfer of power - thereby maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula - is a shared goal of key powers in the region. China was the first to offer official condolences to Pyongyang in the name of the government (within four hours) as well as of the Communist Party (within eight hours), in addition to recognising Kim Jong-un as successor. President Hu Jintao's visit to the North Korean embassy in Beijing was a powerful indicator of the ties between the two socialist nations. Kim Jong-il's four visits to China within the past two years were not futile after all.
The US is watching the developments closely as it was on the verge of conducting serious dialogue with North Korea regarding denuclearisation. While Washington takes seriously the lingering dangers of instability on the peninsula, it also considers the moment a valuable window of policy change on the part of Pyongyang. We are reminded of the US-North Korea Geneva accord on denuclearisation in 1994 following Kim Il-sung's sudden death.
The South Korean government has thus far taken a cautious, calm and rational approach. The departure of Kim may actually relieve Seoul of the burden of demanding Pyongyang's apology for the two incidents of the Cheonan sinking and Yongpyong shelling in 2010.
Dire economic conditions in North Korea - exemplified by the plummeting food self-sufficiency (an estimated two-thirds of food needed in North Korea is produced domestically), shrinking industrial capacity and skyrocketing economic dependence on China - may constrain North Korea's militant options and open a gateway for another rapprochement with the South.
It should also be noted that North Korea has long been infamous for catching the world by surprise. With its per capita income standing at a little more than US$1,000, Pyongyang has very little to lose with its patent adventurism. Over 700 South Korean workers in Kaesong industrial zone could be taken hostage at any time. If the capture of a US navy ship by North Korean forces in 1968 (the Pueblo incident) is a useful guide at all, North Korea may again push China to declare its firm support for Pyongyang against Washington. Political uncertainties next year may actually enhance such possibilities.
Should the dominant mode of operation shift from stability to turmoil, how would the region respond? Given that priorities have often varied among its key players - say, stability for China, reunification for South Korea, and managing weapons of mass destruction for the US - it is not clear through what kind of mechanism differing interests would be co-ordinated so as to produce workable policies. In contrast with Seoul and Washington, Beijing has thus far refused to discuss the so-called North Korean contingencies.
Kim's departure occurred at a crucial juncture in East Asia. It may possibly provide a turning point for the region if well managed. It could also work as a curse, however, if everyone is intent on only pursuing their own interests. Managing North Korea will no doubt constitute a crucial test for regional crisis management as well as for the East Asian security architecture under formation.
Jae Ho Chung is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University, Korea, and the editor of China's Crisis Management