Washington’s next move

Washington’s next move

The only consistent theme from everyone since the death of Kim Jong Il has been that nobody knows what’s going to happen next.

On a conference call Monday, analysts from the conservative American Enterprise Institute cautiously hedged almost everything they said against a backdrop of, well, nobody really understands the North.

“North Korean politics remains fundamentally opaque,” said AEI scholar Nicholas Eberstadt. “Think of Stalin, of the old Kremlinology, or Mao and China-watching — except about 100 times worse.”

From what he’s been able to see and learn, however, Eberstadt said it looks as though the senior Kim made a mistake in preparing a plan of succession for the son who evidently was his heir apparent: Kim Jong Un. North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, spent decades preparing Kim Jong Il to eventually take his place, Eberstadt said, phasing him into the center of party and army life throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Kim Jong Il, on the other hand, was surprisingly “feckless,” as Eberstadt put it, about waiting until the last minute to decide what would come after him.

In fairness to Kim Jong Il — now there’s a phrase one thought one would never write — there’s no way he could have known how little time he had left. He may have planned another decades-long period of inculcation for Kim the younger, possibly timed to next year’s 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader. (In death, he technically remains the leader of the country.)

Eberstadt said Kim the elder’s death this past weekend only increases the danger that Pyongyang celebrates the Great Leader’s centenary with “nuclear fireworks” — one or more nuclear detonations to commemorate the Dear Leader’s success in joining the nuclear club his father always dreamed of entering. Given that Kim the younger is only in his late 20s and only recently decided to go into the family business, observers worry he could test nuclear warheads, provoke the South or do something else reckless to consolidate his hold on power.

But Eberstadt and his colleague, Dan Blumenthal, said that no matter what the North does, it’s out of the world’s hands anyway. The U.S., however, can use the Kim interregnum as an opportunity to change its policies toward Pyongyang and try to exploit the younger Kim’s potentially shaky grip on power, they argued.

First, Eberstadt and Blumenthal said, the U.S. must begin with the end in mind: A unified Korean peninsula with a free market economy and continued alliance with the U.S. To get there, Washington can attack many of the North’s systemic weaknesses: Its reliance on global crime and smuggling to enrich its ruling elite; its reliance on outside food aid and other subsidies to prop up its broken economy; and its default insurance policy of seeking protection from China.

Just cracking down on North Korean counterfeiting, smuggling and other ongoing crimes will start to squeeze the regime that rules what is officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eberstadt argued.

“The DPRK is an international criminal enterprise, and as such it’s much more vulnerable to simple honest police work than other governments in the world,” he said. “Simply letting police work go forward will ineluctably put pressure on the government.”

As Blumenthal pointed out this redoubled “police work” might drive a wedge between the young Kim and the ruling elite, to keep him off balance and motivate as many underlings as possible to resist or even abandon the government. The risk, of course, is destabilizing the government the wrong way and either empowering an even less stable hardliner or inadvertently provoking the North into a full-scale military response.

Whatever happens, the analysts argued that the U.S. must at least keep a firm hand, if not double down on new techniques to pressure the young Kim as he takes power. Now is not the time to try the soft soap, Blumenthal argued.

I think it’ll be tempting to say, ‘there’s an opportunity now that Kim Jong Il is gone,’ there’s an opportunity for us and our allies to begin to explore whether there’s a possibility for a diplomatic breakthrough. I think that would be a mistake.”


Photo: American naval officers visited the wreckage of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, which was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. 

Join the Conversation

I think it is a little difficult to begin with an end in mind that China will not let happen. A unified Korea that shares a border with China and is allied with the US is _not_ going to happen if China has a say (and they do).

They are NOT going to become non-nuclear. They are NOT going to unify with S.Korea in the leading role. I think it’s probably worth beginning with a realistic or achievable end in mind.

And while I agree that hoping for a diplomatic breakthrough seems futile, that awkward dance has to be played out even if the possibility is slim. Going completely soft is a no-go, but a kind of carrot-and-stick or good-cop/bad-cop approach seems necessary.

The outcome the author proposes is completely anti-thetical to China and therefore not possible (absent a complete revolution in China of course) so let’s see what is realistically achievable in the near term…ten years out or so…
– Collapse support thru international criminal activities
– Ratchet up the tension to put the North off balance for a chance (sink a NK ship, shoot a plane down, etc… take a page from their playbook)
– Make it incredibly expensive for China to continue to support NK, cut off food assistance and oil supplies
– Arm the South Koreans to the teeth and see if they will just take care of things themselves

Anything other than strength and unremitting hostility will be interpreted as weakness… once you have proven to the DPRK leadership you are not to be f***‘ed with, then we (USA, South Korea, Japan, etc.) can do business…

At some point, even if it’s 20 years from now, I think unification is inevitable and both the US and China will have to deal with North Korea’s collapse and help contain the mess. The prospect of a US ally on China’s border probably makes them nervous, but if there’s a revolution in the North or some kind of reconciliation, what could China do about it? Would China really be willing to invade the country to prop up the regime? North Korea has been as much of a liability to China in recent years as it’s been a friend. You’d think China wouldn’t have that big of a problem with a non-nuclear, non-reckless country nearby, even if they’re friendlier with us. South Korea would have to devote a significant amount of their economy to rebuilding the North for years and be in no condition to pester China. If anything, China would be in a position to establish a lot of trade with a unified Korea with no sanctions.

If anything this might calm things around the peninsula. If any instability happens I know Red China would send troops to help Kim Il Un gain control again there will be no Korean reunification for any time soon. I just hope that people will get more food and survive better under Un than Jong Il.

“Ming the Merciless” your comments are the reason the US embroils itself in escapades that consume US treasure and soldiers…

The US can simply follow your point #1, then let the regime topple from the bottom up. Containing DPRK nuclear ambitions should be the sole US desire. The rest of the mess should be left to the North Korean people to decide…

Reunification of the Korean peninsula is a possibility, even if it is a free market society with ties to the U.S. Even China itself is slowly becoming more “diversified” in its own economy. However, the only way China lets a united Korea, based upon the current South Korea model, exist is that the U.S. military must leave the peninsula entirely.

The only thing that is scarier to me than a united N. Korea trying to demonstrate that its not deturred by the death of the elder dictator, would be a violently disintegrating N. Korea with its history of less than fully rational behavior and a demonstrated although rudimentary nuclear capability. Even if we could imagine things that we might do to influence the outcomes in Pyongyang, we would be protrayed as the “evil Americans” out to make trouble, likely uniting any factions in their mutual hatred.

This would seem to be a VERY good time to just sit on the sideline, keep the powder dry, but let the N. Koreans sort out their issues. Then, and only then, could we really press ahead with some sort of diplomatic “re-engagement” under the premise of a “new start”, which would seem to be the current policy.

Here is a link to an interesting analysis of the former Korean dictator. .…

At least in my humble opinion, anybody who “outscores” Hitler on a scale of mental aberations is probably best locked up in some carefully secured, soundproof, and padded cell, or somewhere in the sub-basements of Dante’s afterlife. If these social scientists are right, perhaps we should consider ourselves quite lucky that this fellow, and his Iraqi clone, have departed this otherwise sufficiently troubled world.

Earth to all the little Machiavellis on here (editor included) who wish to see the U.S.A. using political Realism against the World’s most unfathomable nuclear regime and its even mightier, nuclear and economical patron:

1) Teenie Kim III will rule completely unopposed until his serene death some day (say: In another 90 years),


2) I doubt that the U.S.A. will still be around in four or five years from now, given their imminent budgetary, economical and social collapse. After you had your own French Revolution, make a toast to young, generous Kim Jong Un every time you bite hungrily into his air-dropped Communist food aid.

It can happen.


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