How would Kim Jong Un’s removal from power affect the likelihood of North Korean violence against the United States or South Korea, and what might be done to prevent such violence?
This should be the single most important question for policymakers, and yet it seems to be the least addressed question in the public discourse on North Korea. Approaching the question as a strategist – by considering the range of potential futures based on extant evidence – would empower Korea watchers to transcend the status quo bias that so often plagues Korea analysis and structure an approach to the question that allows us to avoid both speculation and point predictions. Upon examining the range of potential North Korean leadership futures, the two types of scenarios most likely to give rise to North Korean violence are a military takeover and an internal competition for power involving competing factions.
…strategy requires us to look beyond the present moment, considering those patterns and trends with the potential to shape the future, for better and worse
Kim Jong Un’s noted absence from the public eye for more than a month fueled wide-ranging speculation regarding his whereabouts. The absence of evidence about North Korean governance even compelled National Security Adviser Susan Rice to address the issue, stating that U.S. officials “have not seen any indications of a transfer of power.” The tempest of rumors finally calmed when Kim reportedly appeared in public sporting a walking cane.
Without strategy (and sometimes despite it), policymakers are forced by circumstance to chase events as they happen, being driven by, rather than driving, global affairs. In such a state, policy is nothing more than reactions to what others do. But strategy requires us to look beyond the present moment, considering those patterns and trends with the potential to shape the future, for better and worse.
In that spirit, there are several compelling trends suggesting the direction in which North Korea is capable of changing, even if that change isn’t happening now. First, Kim Jong Un is young, famously unhealthy and far from universally respected, all things that seem as true today as they did in 2011. Second, political legitimacy in North Korea depends, at present, entirely on the narrative of the Kim family as dynasty and destiny, yet if Kim’s brothers were previously deemed unfit for rule, then a post-Kim Jong Un future that maintains political continuity would likely rely on either a puppet or a female relative, with the latter seeming unlikely and the former obscuring more about who wields power than it reveals. Third, the only plausible alternative narrative with any historical continuity continues to be songun, a “military first” discourse that venerates the large, organized, and well connected military.
ALTERNATIVE SCENARIOS: FOUR TYPES
Although there is a nearly endless guessing game about leadership outcomes in North Korea, given the above internal trends, there are really only four types of outcomes with which policymakers might be concerned: Kim family continuity, oligarchic rule by political or bureaucratic elites, a military junta or decentralized rule by competing factions. Of these, the latter two represent the types that are, on balance, more likely to produce North Korean violence.
To be sure, there is risk of violence in any type of North Korean leadership configuration – 60 years of North Korean military provocations under Kim family leadership prove that civilian control does not assure peace. But the North Korea “problem” under leadership scenarios involving dynastic continuity or party-led oligarchy does not necessarily predispose North Korea to violence any more than at present. Violence is always possible, of course, but when navigating great uncertainty, conditions of likelihood deduced from history or logic should be our compass.
By comparison, scenarios involving the ascendance of the Korean People’s Army or National Defense Commission may be more likely to increase North Korea’s proclivity for violence. International relations scholarship has found that the risk of conflict is higher in military juntas or states in which militaries hold disproportionate power because of “common biases, inflexible routines, and parochial interests” inherent to running a military organization, especially in a dictatorship. Militaries are also thought to be more subject than civilian leaders to the “cult of the offensive” – the belief that the strategic value of offensive military action trumps defensive preparedness or counter-measures. As a result, when militaries control foreign policy, they tend toward the pursuit of military strategy at the expense of political consequence.
An alternative scenario in which centralized regime control is replaced with competing factions poses distinct risks of North Korean violence relative to dynastic continuity as well. This is because contested processes of political change can give rise to violence when combined with intact security institutions (e.g., the military, internal security services) and a lack of domestic clarity about who precisely is in charge. Under these circumstances, violence becomes politically useful to signal legitimate authority to domestic audiences. Any authorities capable of using violence against U.S. or South Korean forces prove their ability to “defend” the North Korean people.
WHAT TO DO
Knowing what to do based on an alternative futures analysis is often not straightforward. Defining alternative futures introduces logical constraints on policymaking, necessary courses of action can be quite unappealing, and there are rarely options that will simply solve the problem presented. Such is the case with any recommendations I could offer based on this quick-look analysis; none will solve the North Korea “problem.”
Just because the United States relies disproportionately on the Department of State for crafting foreign policy does not mean other nations assign equal weight to their foreign ministries
There are, however, certain courses of actions that make eminent sense given our desire to avoid or manage the most unappealing scenario outcomes.
One is to initiate diplomatic engagement with the KPA, even if not at a high political level; additional communication channels are always useful in a context of rampant uncertainty. Plus, limiting diplomatic engagement to a handful of elites in North Korea’s Foreign Ministry smells of U.S. mirror-imaging. Just because the United States relies disproportionately on the Department of State for crafting foreign policy does not mean other nations assign equal weight to their foreign ministries. This is not to say that North Korea’s Foreign Ministry is irrelevant, but the military establishment in North Korea is far more meaningful than a mere bureaucratic appendage of the state, and we should want interlocutors of influence.
Another recommendation is to define indicators of power transition according to the four types of transition scenarios identified here. While necessary, it’s insufficient to only identify indicators of potential political transition without differentiating among types of political transition; some types are more likely to give rise to violence than others. Defining clear examples of evidence that constitute confirming indicators associated with different types of leadership transitions helps mitigate (though doesn’t necessarily resolve) interpretive biases.
A third recommendation is to bolster U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance capabilities to either deter or defend against “most likely” types of North Korean coercion – especially drone-based provocations and military attacks in the Yellow Sea. There are limits to the outside world’s ability to influence North Korean decisions, despite best efforts, so the alliance should take steps to mitigate vulnerabilities.
A final recommendation calls for reinforcing the nuclear and WMD taboo, rhetorically and through policy. North Korea must understand that while violence may invite retaliation, coercion with nuclear, chemical, or biological attacks will definitively end whomever claims power in that instance; any North Korean leader that resorts to violence must understand that WMD use constitutes suicide.
As we continue being titillated with each nugget of intrigue coming out of North Korea, it is imperative policymakers not lose sight of what we really care about and what might be done as a result. Otherwise, we risk being caught off guard by change, reacting to events as they occur, and being forced to make decisions (or not) on the fly.
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