In North Korea, it’s hardly regime change – but the transition crisis offers opportunity and, perhaps, new perils for Washington.
The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, the unpredictable and brutal ‘Dear Leader’ who menaced the region with nuclear weapons while haplessly letting more than 1-million of his people starve to death, leaves an unstable succession.
For President Barack Obama, whose high-stakes, high-profile focus has been on the Pacific, the North Korean crisis offers a chance to recast a relationship long fraught with the risk of war.
As North Korea struggles to shift power to the ‘Great Successor’ – the little-known and untested 29-year-old youngest son, Kim Jong-un, a new chapter in the 21st-century version of the Great Game will open.
China, Russia and the United States will all maneuver to influence what may be a secretive, contested and uncertain transition. Factions inside North Korea may seek support outside.
For Mr. Obama, whose assertive claim that “the United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay” irked China last month, the North Korean upheaval offers opportunity to expand American trade and influence, impress allies and contain rivals.
“We remain committed to stability on the Korean peninsula, and to the freedom and security of our allies,” was the stock response from the White House as the news of Kim Jong-il’s death roiled markets in the hours after his death was announced.
And while South Korea put its military on high alert and U.S. forces in the region stepped up their readiness to react, short of some chaotic collapse, the real shifts will play out in the months ahead.
After decades of mutual hostility punctuated by occasional deals that soon failed, America’s relations with North Korea remain a Cold War hangover from the 1950s war.
As he recasts America’s Pacific policy, sending Marines to Australia and opening a dialogue with Myanmar’s military rulers, Mr. Obama has signaled a new American willingness to counter-balance China’s rising power in the Pacific.
America’s new Pacific focus will “to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values,” said State Secretary Hillary Clinton. For the Obama administration, all three are now in play in North Korea.
For longtime allies, like Japan and South Korea, Washington’s handling of the unfolding North Korean transition will also test whether Mr. Obama’s new Pacific doctrine can deliver results, not just rhetoric. Both risks and opportunities will be greater if – as many expect – Pyongyang is riven with factions struggling behind the scenes for power.
To complicate matters, the impoverished and backwards North Korea was in the throes of planning a massive year-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung in 2012. Now a 20-something, unknown is the supposed successor in a shaky neo-Stalinist dynasty, with, frighteningly, a finger on a nuclear-weapons trigger. In the worst-case scenarios, Kim Jong-un creates a crisis on the heavily militarized Korean peninsula to prop up his claim to power.
Perhaps more likely, is a period of uncertainty and disequilibrium as the regime attempts to perpetuate itself.
Washington was on the verge of announcing a major food donation – without ties to any resumption of the stalled talks on nuclear weapons – to North Korea. Whether the death of Kim Jong-il will change or delay that plan may be an early signal of whether Mr. Obama wants to push hard for a new relationship.