The Man Who Would Be Kim

Byung-joon Ahn. Foreign Affairs. Volume 73, Issue 6. November/December 1994.

Korea’s Dangerous Future

The Korean peninsula has entered a period of grave uncertainty. The death of North Korean President Kim Il Sung on July 8 came at a critical moment. The United States had just resumed talks to probe whether North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for diplomatic recognition and economic assistance. With Kim’s death, the answer to that question, which will define the fate of not only the North but the entire peninsula, fell into the untested hands of his son, Kim Jong Il. It is a question that this oddly reclusive man cannot hope to answer. Having assumed power when he did, the younger Kim is caught in a bind that only his father might have had the power, if not the wisdom, to break.

Kim Jong Il’s dilemma is this: the North’s increasing isolation and impoverishment make political and economic reform imperative; but Kim may find reform impossible. His legitimacy rests almost solely with the mantle of extreme nationalism inherited from his revered father. Kim will have little choice now but to continue down that road. But the need for economic opening is so overwhelming, the North’s isolationist course and pursuit of nuclear weapons so untenable, and Kim’s apparent abilities so limited that his regime will almost surely be short-lived.

The Korean peninsula remains unique. It is a place where the strategic interests of China, Japan, and Russia intersect, and where the United States still keeps 37,000 troops to deter another war. A nuclearized North or its messy breakup can only be averted by strengthening the regional deterrence and defense capabilities of America and its East Asian allies now. A steady and consistent policy of quiet and credible action will help discourage any provocation by the North’s insecure but substantially weakened regime. In the meantime, should a reformist clique emerge—one that takes its cues from economic necessity rather than the dangerous imperatives of an outmoded ideology—then a new era of reconciliation and cooperation can commence.

Despite the Geneva accords, the status of the North’s nuclear program is likely to remain unresolved. Washington must be careful not to let Pyongyang divide the United States from its allies. Together they must make clear that a nuclear-armed North is unacceptable. It would not only disrupt the state of deterrence on the peninsula but also threaten East Asia’s entire balance of power. The only resolution to the crisis is not merely to contain the North’s current program but to roll back any nuclear weapons capability it may have already developed.

Why Kim Won’t Last

Kim Jong Il’s greatest asset is that he is the North’s only alternative. Given the suddenness of his father’s death, the ruling North Korean Labor Party, the People’s Army, and the state bureaucracy have had little choice but to rally behind him as their supreme leader.

After all, Kim was handpicked by his father, the so-called Great Leader. Groomed since the 1970s to be the “party center,” he has cultivated his own support network of “revolutionary small groups” and assumed supreme command of the military in the 1990s. But how long Kim remains in power will depend on his health, whether he can preserve unity among the ruling groups and feed his people, and most important, how he handles the nuclear issue.

Little is known of Kim, who has been strangely shrouded from public view for most of his career. His health seems to be poor; he is known to have diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart problems. His competence and character remain sources of intense speculation. Kim is rumored to have orchestrated the bizarre kidnapping in 1978 of a South Korean actress with whom he had developed a peculiar fascination. He is also suspected of having directed the 1983 bombing in Rangoon that assassinated much of the South Korean cabinet when President Chun Doo Hwan visited there, as well as the 19g87 explosion aboard a South Korean airliner that killed 115 people. He may have initiated Pyongyang’s move to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in March 1993, and from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in June 1994. With the exception of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, former Chinese President Yang Shangkun, and Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Shihanouk, he has rarely met foreign dignitaries. Except for his erratic behavior, Kim is largely an unknown entity.

It is this unheralded man who must now skipper the North’s sinking ship through perilously unfamiliar waters. The end of the Cold War has placed the North in the midst of simultaneous political and economic crises. Both the Soviet Union (then Russia) and China have normalized relations with the South, increasing the North’s isolation and challenging the rationale of the state. Today, China provides the North’s only dependable support, supplying roughly a million tons of oil and a half-million tons of food each year.

The disappearance of communist allies and Pyongyang’s autarkic mismanagement have devastated the North’s economy. Between 1989 and 1993, gross national product shrank 20 percent to about $20.5 billion, roughly one-sixteenth the size of the South’s $328.7 billion economy. The North’s foreign trade declined another 1.1 percent in 1983 to a mere $2.4 million, exacerbating the foreign exchange shortage of a treasury that already owes $10 billion in foreign debt. As food and energy shortages worsen, North Koreans have been urged to eat only two meals a day, and factories reportedly operate at 30 percent of capacity. In December 1993, the regime acknowledged for the first time that it had missed the production targets of its third seven-year plan.

Thus, in all aspects except the nuclear field, the competition between the North and the South is over. The South has outperformed the North both economically and politically. The South’s economy ranks fifteenth in the world in terms of GNP and thirteenth in trade volume. Although its politics remain volatile, the South has wrought a functioning democracy, electing Kim Young Sam in 1993 as the first civilian president in 32 years. The South, moreover, remains a faithful security ally of the United States, as well as being its seventh-largest trading partner.

Given these circumstances, Kim’s primary goal will be survival. Domestically, that means preserving the name of juche ideology, his father’s founding philosophy of self-reliance and exclusive nationalism based on the principles of independence and grand national unity in a “Koryo Confederal Democratic Republic.” Unification policy will continue to be based on the rhetoric of “one nation, one country, and two systems, two governments.” Foreign policy, however, will be based on two Koreas, in the hopes of protecting the legitimacy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a state.

The North’s economic crisis and the nuclear issue will seriously challenge Kim’s skills as a political operator. Scenarios for his downfall are many. Intense debates could fracture his elite circle into competing power centers. Internal challengers may seek to undermine Kim’s uncertain stature, exposing to the public tales of corruption or other more unsavory aspects of Kim’s private life. The specter of mass starvation could spark popular rebellions. A leader as untested as Kim could also inadvertently provoke the kind of domestic or international crisis that would ultimately be his own undoing. Kim’s power will remain relatively safe only so long as his competence commands the support of top military and party leaders, such as Marshal O Jin U, Prime Minister Kang Song San, and Kim Il Sung’s younger brother Kim Yong Ju, who returned to the Politburo in December 1983 after an unexplained absence of some 20 years. But it is precisely Kim’s competence that has long been called into question.

But the real crux of Kim’s quandary is that, despite the overwhelming need for economic reform, he has little choice but to continue his father’s outmoded policies. For nearly two decades, Kim justified his claim to power as being the heir to his father’s mantle in what would be North Korea’s first communist dynastic succession, even as the North’s political and economic crises turned that inheritance into a liability. Now, the more Kim tries to bolster his credibility by following the political imperatives set by his father, the worse his economic difficulties and diplomatic isolation will become.

Importantly, Kim lacks his father’s charisma. Absent the same cult of personality, Kim’s reign may not last too long. Kim Il Sung’s near-deification as the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic allowed him to transcend any challenge to his legitimacy, even as he presided over the North’s isolation and economic ruin. The inheritor of that “revolutionary” legacy cannot hope to be as lucky. Kim cannot raise his people’s standard of living, as Deng Xiaoping has done in China, without jettisoning his father’s philosophy of self-reliance and diminishing the mantle of his inheritance. He cannot liberalize the political system, as Boris Yeltsin has done in Russia, without alienating military and party leaders and seriously jeopardizing his grip on power. As long as he “adheres to and brightens our style of socialism,” as Foreign Minister Kim Yong Nam encouraged him to do in his eulogy for Kim Il Sung, Kim’s own future will remain murky indeed.

After the Fall

It is not easy to delineate precise scenarios for the North after Kim Jong Il’s demise. But two likely possibilities exist: the ascension of a reform-minded military-bureaucratic regime, or a violent collapse of the state. Which will occur depends primarily on the quality of the North’s leadership, the cohesion of its elite, the leadership’s ability to cope with the economic crisis, and how it manages the nuclear issue. One thing is clear: the regime under the Kim family is unlikely to survive for too long, and North Korea is bound to undergo some kind of structural transformation, with or without reform.

A military-bureaucratic regime would distance itself from the Kim dynasty, following China’s example of top-down reform and economic opening. As of now, real reformers, a North Korean Deng or Yeltsin, do not exist. But over time, as the economic crisis deepens and North Koreans, popularly and within the party leadership, begin to question the viability of the Kim dynasty, perestroika may eventually find Pyongyang. Reform would most likely be carried out by a collective leadership and reflect consensus within the party. To maintain order, this new cadre would try to preserve a one-party system but carry out liberalizing economic reforms along the path taken by neighboring China or Vietnam.

Such a regime might be more accommodating of reconciliation with the South and of U. S. demands for nuclear transparency. It would have less difficulty abandoning the Kims’ rationale of confrontation and isolation that serve as the organizing principles of the world’s last surviving Stalinist state. To carry out a successful economic opening, a reformist regime would need access to trade and economic assistance from the United States and its East Asian allies. Freed of ideological baggage, it might be more likely to forfeit the nuclear program as a bargaining chip. Hence, a reformist clique is the most desirable scenario for initiating a new era in North-South relations and for the North’s political and economic integration with the rest of the world.

But such a benign evolution is not guaranteed. For a nation so long closed, the path of reform is fraught with uncertainty. The limited skills and resources available to economic planners would make it difficult to satisfy rising consumer demand, especially if broader access to media and information expose the extent of the North’s impoverishment. A reformist regime could also fall prey to a cycle of rising popular political expectations. Even for avowed economic reformers, “seeking truth from facts,” as Deng has urged in China, carries political dangers, as the frustrated 1989 revolt in Tiananmen Square amply proved. A reformist regime in the North could find itself similarly tested, or even toppled.

Thus a violent collapse, initiated by an internal power struggle or civil strife, could befall either Kim or a reformist regime. As happened in the revolutions that unsettled old orders in Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria, the regime’s collapse could produce a period of anarchy. But in the case of the North, it is highly unlikely that either a civil society or political pluralism would quickly spring up. Instead, chaos would likely drive millions of refugees across the Tuman and Yalu rivers and the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. Thousands of others could take to the seas. Such a scenario is among the worst possible outcomes and one that South Korea, China, Japan, and the United States would certainly like to avoid.

It is against this potentially gruesome backdrop that the United States, its allies, and Pyongyang itself must work toward the North’s “soft landing” through gradual economic reform. Only when economic necessity prevails over the political imperatives of the Kim dynasty can such an outcome materialize. But given the rigid nature of Kim’s regime, a “crash landing” is more likely. Such an event could lead either to another attempt to construct a reformist regime or to a sudden and unstable reunion with the South.

Playing a Weak Hand

In his game of brinkmanship, Kim Il Sung attempted to use the nuclear card to recast the North’s survival and security. He sought to present the world with a fait accompli and to keep the nuclear weapons that his regime has, in all likelihood, already developed. Only in his final days, as Washington contemplated tough U. N. economic sanctions and former President Jimmy Carter made his “private” journey to Pyongyang, did Kim agree to freeze his ongoing nuclear program in return for resuming high-level talks with the United States. To avert further isolation, he attempted to bargain away the limited prospect of future inspections in order to extort political recognition and economic concessions from the United States, Japan, and other Western countries.

The North’s future now hinges on his son. But judging from the Geneva accords that Kim Jong Il signed with the United States in August and October 1994, he has not changed his father’s policies. Whether he will faithfully implement these pledges remains to be seen.

The deals contained the following: Kim agreed not to reprocess the North’s some 8,000 spent fuel rods and to halt construction of two nearly completed reactors, to seal and allow IAEA monitoring of a “radiochemical laboratory,” and to remain party to the NPT; in return, Washington promised to provide two 2,000-megawatt light-water reactors (which produce non-weapons-grade fuel), to arrange for an interim energy source as the North’s graphite-moderated reactors are dismantled, to refrain from using nuclear weapons against the North, and to establish diplomatic representation” in each other’s capitals.

In other words, Washington gave Pyongyang all that it wanted. Importantly, the Geneva agreements lack a provision for timely special, let alone mutual, inspection of suspected nuclear facilities or waste sites to verify the North’s past record. This was the reason South Korea and Japan were so unhappy over the August accord, with South Korea’s President Kim Young Sam stating that even “one-half” of a nuclear weapon in the North is unacceptable. Since then, Washington had insisted that the North commit to inspections before construction of a light-water reactor could begin; the North had refused. The October accord does not remedy that situation. Washington is in danger of acquiescing in Pyongyang’s policy of nuclear ambiguity.

Moreover, Kim’s ability to implement what he has already agreed to must be questioned. Although the threat of sanctions would appear compelling, Kim depends first on the support of his military, which is currently led by old-style guerrilla-war partisans who may continue to regard nuclear weapons as their primary guarantee of security. Pyongyang is thus likely to remain determined not to allow any inspection of its past nuclear record. At some point, Kim may seek to use his regime’s nuclear card to replace the U. N.-North Korean armistice that halted the Korean War with a peace agreement reducing or gradually removing U. S. forces from the South.

Three near-term decisions by Kim will give some indication as to the North’s agenda and Kim’s ability to carry out the Geneva accords. First, Kim must decide whether to reprocess the North’s spent fuel rods, which contain about 40 kilograms of plutonium (enough for five atomic bombs) and to reload the North’s five-megawatt graphite-moderated reactor with fresh rods, which Pyongyang has threatened to do. These decisions must be made soon, as the spent rods continue to deteriorate in the cooling pond where they are stored. The United States wanted the spent rods placed under IAEA control and moved to a third country. The North proposed “dry storage,” that is, encasing them in cement within North Korea. Under the NPT, Pyongyang can legally reprocess the rods with IAEA inspectors present, although doing so would violate the North-South denuclearization agreement signed in 1991. Thus, reprocessing may yet proceed.

Kim’s second decision regards the future of the nuclear program. Not only is the North’s five-megawatt reactor awaiting refueling, but a separate 50-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon could begin operating in early 1995, and a third 200-megawatt reactor in Taechon could be completed in 1996. Once in full operation, the two larger reactors could produce enough spent fuel to reprocess plutonium for at least 20 to 30 bombs per year. In addition to the three reactors, a plutonium reprocessing plant is also nearly complete, and in March 1994 IAEA inspectors reported evidence that a second reprocessing line was being built in the same plant.

North Korea is thus at the threshold of becoming a major nuclear power. It remains to be seen whether it will indeed abandon these facilities, which have cost it more than $2 billion, in return for the U. S. pledge to supply two light-water reactors that will cost about $4 billion and take seven to ten years to construct. Besides, dismantling the North’s existing reactors will itself cost an enormous amount of money. Although the North has agreed to freeze construction of the two larger graphite reactors, whether it will actually carry through on that pledge is far from certain.

Finally, Kim must decide whether to allow international inspection of any undeclared nuclear facilities and weapons that the North has developed. The CIA believes that the North may have already produced one or two nuclear bombs. Vladimir Kryuchkov, former head of the KGB, reported to the Soviet Politburo as early as February 1990 that the North had developed a nuclear device. Most recently, on July 27, 1994, Kang Myung Do, a defector identified as the son-in-law of North Korean Prime Minister Kang Song San, told a news conference in Seoul that the North possesses five nuclear weapons and is trying to develop five more while it stretches out negotiations with the United States.

How Kim decides these issues will only be revealed in the process of implementing the Geneva agreements, which itself is likely to require a long and arduous negotiation. Judging from the North’s strategy so far, however, the real danger exists that Pyongyang has already succeeded in keeping any weapons it previously made while buying the time to build more. Washington’s decision to freeze the North’s nuclear program now while delaying the inspection of Pyongyang’s past record and its medium-range ballistic missile and biochemical weapons programs may actually have worsened this danger.

Seoul’s Nightmare

Seoul has grown increasingly wary of the manner in which Washington’s negotiations with Pyongyang have progressed. It harbors the very real concern that Washington is so preoccupied with freezing further development of the North’s nuclear program that, despite the Geneva accords, it may forgo purposeful action on Pyongyang’s past record, much as Washington did with Pakistan. From Seoul’s viewpoint, Washington had prompted the South to abandon its own reprocessing and enrichment of fissile material for nuclear weapons in 1991, and so it is now incumbent on Washington to make Pyongyang do the same. It worries that Washington may be tempted to pursue a policy that pulls back from the brink at the expense of ensuring a denuclearized peninsula. Seoul also fears that its interests will suffer from Washington’s overriding concern with global nuclear nonproliferation—that Washington may be tempted to declare victory in order to bolster a sagging NPT, which is up for renewal in 1995, and thus forsake local deterrence and assurances on a denuclearlized North.

Indeed, Seoul fears that Washington may even strike a separate peace with Pyongyang, delinking its relationship with the North from its alliance with the South. Washington’s agreement to set up a liaison office in Pyongyang, even before Seoul has one, has not helped matters. South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung Joo visited Washington in September to emphasize that the North’s relationships with the United States and the South should proceed in tandem. Washington acknowledged the need for both dialogues to complement each other but has also made clear that it will negotiate independently with Pyongyang if necessary.

Yet it would be difficult for Washington to fully implement a satisfactory agreement absent: Seoul’s approval and cooperation. For example, it is the South that has committed to financing 70 percent of the cost of the light-water reactors through an international consortium, the Korea Energy Development Organization, to be launched under Washington’s auspices. It is important, therefore, that Washington help the two Koreas normalize their relations. Washington’s best tack is to work toward the long-term goal of consensual unification even as it seeks a short-term resolution of the nuclear issue.

Throughout their talks, however, the North has sought to maneuver itself between the United States and the South and to negotiate the nuclear issue with Washington alone. Moreover, it has treated its relations with the South as necessary only to the extent that they improve relations with the United States. As long as South Korea remains fearful of being left out of an issue in which it possesses such vital stakes, relations with both the North and the United States are bound to deteriorate. Both Washington and Seoul must make clear to Pyongyang that normal relations with the United States depend first on normal relations with the South.

Seoul has other concerns as well. A nuclear-armed North would certainly upset the state of deterrence on the Korean peninsula. Seoul doubts whether Washington would indeed extend its own nuclear arsenal in case of attack, and even whether Washington would continue to maintain its forward troop deployment in the teeth of a North Korean nuclear threat. While the North’s motivation may well be defensive, a nuclear capability nonetheless increases the likelihood of diplomatic blackmail by Pyongyang. It also greatly diminishes the prospect of consensual reunification through a gradual process of confidence-building.

In short, Kim Jong Il with a nuclear arsenal is the South’s strategic nightmare. As such, Seoul can be expected to stand firm against permanent ambiguity for the North’s nuclear status. Moreover, should the United States appear to acquiesce in letting the North keep nuclear weapons, the credibility of the U. S. security commitment as well as U. S.-South Korean relations could only suffer.

By Design Or Default

At such a time of uncertainty, the United States and South Korea must reaffirm their alliance commitments and the goals of nuclear transparency and gradual reunification. This message should be clearly communicated to Pyongyang. Preventing a nuclear North will require Washington to exercise timely and decisive leadership with clearly defined goals, a consistent policy, and credible action. Seoul should consult with Washington and coordinate its own policies toward that same end.

Above all, the United States and the South must remain united in their goal of ensuring a denuclearized peninsula. This means getting a full accounting of Pyongyang’s past record through timely IAEA and mutual North-South inspections. At the same time, Washington must stem further growth in Pyongyang’s nuclear program by compelling Kim to live up to the commitments that he signed in Geneva. The Clinton administration should make clear that it will withhold diplomatic recognition and economic cooperation, including a light-water reactor, unless Kim makes good on the accords. Such a policy would receive the support of the U. S. Senate, which has unanimously passed a bill stating that no finds be made available to North Korea “until the President certifies and reports to Congress that North Korea does not possess nuclear weapons, has halted its nuclear weapons program, and has not exported weapons-grade plutonium.”

Washington must also make clear that Pyongyang must first normalize relations with Seoul before it can negotiate any peace with the United States. Any other policy would substantially undermine Seoul’s attempts to improve its own relations with Pyongyang. Nor should Washington allow Pyongyang to chip away at the U. S.-South Korean mutual defense treaty, which has kept the peace on the peninsula for more than 40 years. In these areas, Washington and Seoul must speak with one voice. Otherwise, Washington will be playing into Pyongyang’s hands by inadvertently strengthening the pillars on which Kim’s failing regime now rests.

For those reasons, Washington must take care not to transform talks over implementing the Geneva accords into a long political negotiation. The more the North can prolong direct negotiations with the United States, the more it will try to relegate relations with the South to an ancillary status. Such a course would not only damage Washington’s relations with Seoul but also diminish the chances for a political reconciliation between the two Koreas, on which an ultimate solution to the peninsula’s crisis depends.

But it remains doubtful that Kim will live up to the Geneva accords at all, especially given Pyongyang’s track record of reneging at the last minute even as others meet its demands. The best way to ensure compliance is for Washington and its allies to remain strong in the face of a progressively weakening, if unpredictable, Kim regime. Kim will only give up the perceived gains of his nuclear program if faced with a certain countervailing disincentive.

As U. S. Secretary of Defense William Perry has suggested, “a very firm stand and very strong actions” are the best way to deter any possible military provocation by the North. This means enhancing joint deterrence capabilities with the South. Coordinated, quiet, and firm action on the part of the allies should keep pace with any escalation in Kim’s bluster. The Geneva accords, continued negotiation, and the threat of sanctions will not produce desired results from Pyongyang unless they are backed up by a clear demonstration of determination and strength.

A nuclear-armed North would upset East Asia’s entire military balance, causing South Korea, Japan, and even Taiwan to consider developing equivalent deterrents. It is in the interests of all the region’s powers, then, that the North be denied nuclear weapons. Washington should thus stem any tendency for others to “free ride” as it bears the burden and risks of diplomacy. China, especially, has opposed sanctions in favor of diplomacy, but without facilitating dialogue with the North. As it enjoys the best relations with Pyongyang, Beijing should be pressed to persuade Kim to abandon his nuclear ambitions. This issue is important enough that the United States and Japan should make progress in their bilateral relations with Beijing contingent on a truly constructive Chinese role.

Russia has said that it will support U. N. sanctions, provided that an eight-party conference be held first, an idea that the United States has reluctantly supported. Japan, meanwhile, has made clear that it can only support sanctions if they come through the United Nations. Yet Japan shares a strong interest in preventing a nuclear-armed North. If China succeeds in blocking U. N. sanctions, the United States should at least enlist Japan and South Korea in imposing their own sanctions, and only when the North shows serious signs of scuttling the nuclear option should they provide generous economic and political assistance. In the meantime, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan should also strive to provide a stable security environment in Northeast Asia through a two-plus-four dialogue that includes both Koreas, as an important supplement to the region’s discrete bilateral relationships.

What is at stake on the Korean peninsula after the death of Kim Il Sung is the very credibility of American foreign policy, which Washington’s confused signals thus far have significantly eroded. Only by restoring a steady hand can Washington regain the trust and respect that will ensure peace on the Korean peninsula and its success in future efforts at global nuclear nonproliferation.

But ultimately, the Korean question must be resolved by Koreans themselves, through normalized relations and eventual unification. The death of Kim Il Sung has raised the hope that those goals might someday soon be attained. South Korea will continue to view unification as a slow process of confidence-building and reconciliation, even as the North pursues its chimera of a confederal state. But it would serve Pyongyang well to recognize that Korean unification can come by design, or it may just as surely come by default.