The North Korean Communist King, Kim Jong Il, the second one from the reigning Kim dynasty died of heart attack on Saturday, December 17th. His youngest son, 27 years old Kim Jong Un, the great successor is ostensibly anointed to succeed him in this hermit state. Besides the palace intrigues of the ruling dynasty, North Korean military has a powerful role in the statecraft with the untested young Kim prince-ling as the titular head of the Stalinist state.
North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong Il had twice tested a nuclear device in 2006 and in May 2009, Its nuclear program is certainly aided and abetted by both China and Pakistan in what is called the “CHIPNOKISS” network. Last year, Korea North unveiled a uranium enrichment facility, giving it a second route to make an atomic bomb along with its plutonium program. The secretive Stalinist state of North Korea is one of the greatest threats to regional security on the Korean peninsula with frequent saber-rattling and pin-pricks to their South Korean counterparts.
There are several possible geo-political scenarios following this significant event. Despite the fervent wishes of the Western observers, it is unlikely that the totalitarian Stalinist state would unravel. Communist China will continue to ensure that its most effective client state remains unified and continues to serve Chinese geo-political interests with deniability. Military will continue to rule North Korea with possibly a regent emerging from the ruling Kim dynasty while the boy-king comes of age in the state-craft.
The departed “dear Leader” also promoted his sister and her husband, Chang Song-thaek, to important political and military posts, creating a powerful gang of three. Chang can acquire the role of an effective regent for the younger Kim prince-ling. He holds a top position in the powerful Worker's Party providing some balance to the generals who have been seen as more hard-line in pushing the North to develop an atomic arsenal.
The Stalinist state under the great successor will muddle along with continued economic help from China. The military will act responsibly and not take adventurous steps vis-à-vis South Korea. After several years of grooming, the young prince-ling will get his wings and would lead North Korea happily to more starvation and misery but with an iron fist. The North Korean military will maintain its chokehold on the state and continue to enjoy the privileges and the pelf.
A more alarmist scenario is that the North Korean military, under threat of loss of power and privileges, might attack South Korea and create a dangerous situation on the Korean peninsula. If the North Korean generals are sane, they would not use this opportunity to test their power and hopefully would not start a new war.
Having said that, anything is possible in love and war, and of course in geo-politics. Death of the “dear leader” may lead to palace intrigues and a de facto succession battle with other sons of the dead king throwing their hats in the ring. Or else, the great successor himself might precipitate a crisis to prove his “coming of age” to his brothers or to the regent. The regime may try to deflect attention from its shortcomings and might use the nuclear weapons in the ensuing conflict. The de facto regent may want to acquire more power de jure. A prolonged succession battle might lead to more severe economic crisis, famine, misery, starvation and a consequent massive exodus of North Korean refugees into the neighboring states.
Such a scenario presents the international community with a window of opportunity to help unravel the Stalinist state, complete the unfinished business of Korean War of 1954 which had ended with only an armistice agreement and without an enduring peace treaty. Perhaps, the UNSC, the IAEA and the former allied powers may need to intervene to secure the North Korean nuclear weapons if North Korean refugees start pouring into the “Demilitarized Zone” (DMZ) and into neighboring China and South Korea. Unraveling of the Stalinist State would eventually contribute to a slow and painful demise of the made in China “CHIPNOKISS” network of illicit nuclear weapons proliferation and trade.
Will China like such an outcome? Decidedly not! Will China risk an international war trying to protect her client state? Very unlikely! China will try to stem the tide of North Korean refugees into China if the unstable regime in North Korea falters. China would want the status quo to continue by any means. However, China has other pressing economic and social priorities rather than fighting another hot war in the Korean peninsula. China itself is going to go through a leadership transition in 2012 when President Hu Jintao completes his second four year term.
China also needs to brace itself for possible defeat of Ma Ying-jeau of Kuomintang (KMT) in the January 14th 2012 presidential elections in Taiwan. If the DPP candidate Tsai wins the Taiwanese presidential elections, China will have a lot on its plate to deal with. Such a sequence of geo-political events in North East Asia will make reunification of the Korean peninsula possible under UN supervision. North Korean citizens would be grateful to the UN for letting that happen. South Korea would secretly favor such an outcome because it will eventually lead to removal of nuclear weapons controlled by the communist Kim dynasty from Korean peninsula.
Such an interventionist scenario in the North East Asia would be in the long term strategic and geo-political interests of India. It will set an international example as to how under certain “dangerous conditions” forced denuclearization of a “rogue regime” is acceptable to the UN, the IAEA and the international community. To India’s advantage, it may ultimately lead to dismantling of the “CHIPNOKISS” network.