By Alan D. Romberg and Yuki Tatsumi – Kim Jong-Il’s passing is untimely in the sense that his son and designated successor, Kim Jong-Un, is clearly not ready to take the reins of power. Still, one assumes that the various elite factions in the North, including the military and the party, while wanting to signal to the outside world that they are prepared for any attempt to take advantage of the situation, are not interested in rocking the boat. At least for now.
One presumes China received early word about Kim Jong-Il’s death, and that mutual commitments were exchanged about maintaining People’s Republic of China (PRC) backing for Pyongyang, and for the North not engaging in provocative actions. (The short-range missile test shortly after the announcement of Kim Jong-Il’s death was no doubt a “gentle” reminder that the military remains cohesive and able to act if necessary).
Anyone who projects a new direction for North Korea is engaging in pure speculation. Generally speaking, steady on course will be the safest policy. Perhaps different from 1994, when Kim Il Sung died and yet Pyongyang was able to proceed to conclude the Agreed Framework with the United States within three months, a firm policy direction may not be as clear at this point.
It is possible that Pyongyang will still want to get to the Six-Party negotiating table, including by suspending the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon as it has already indicated it was willing to do, which China will no doubt encourage. But no one should be surprised if, even within a few months, we do return to the negotiating table, which does not get us very far toward meaningful progress on denuclearization. Beijing decided more than a year ago to place North Korean stability above all else on the Peninsula. There is no reason to assume it will change its mind now.
– Alan Romberg
Kim Jong-il’s passing does not alter the situation Japan has found itself in vis-à-vis North Korea. On the one hand, Japan remains deeply committed to the ultimate goal of the Six-Party talks–North Korea’s renunciation of its nuclear program. On the other hand, the lack of “satisfactory” resolution of the abduction issue remains an obstacle for Japan to demonstrate any flexibility in its North Korea policy.
It is clearly premature to determine whether a new regime under Kim Jong-Un will seek a new approach to its foreign policy. In fact, if the foundation of the new regime is still as unsteady as some suggest, it is possible for Pyongyang to resort to more provocations, including new nuclear tests, to demonstrate the regime’s strength to the elites and military leaders in North Korea who are not satisfied with the current leadership. Under such circumstances, the best course for Japan, for now, is to remain in close consultation with the United States and the Republic of Korea as the three countries confer on the way forward.
At the same time, however, the Japanese government is best advised to begin to chart an “exit strategy” on the abduction issue. Though politically sensitive, Tokyo cannot be in the position in which it remains unable to engage in the Six-Party talks in meaningful manner due to the issue of abduction. The Japanese government should define a “satisfactory resolution” to the abduction issue, and should chart the way forward.
– Yuki Tatsumi
Photo Credit: John Pavelka, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/4644100274/