Seoul and Beijing in a Pyongyang Cage Match

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The North Koreans might be choosing a successor this week, but it’s the Chinese and South Koreans who are fighting each other. Amid the consensus that Kim Jong-un will be the next “fat, ruthless” Kim family member to rule the DPRK, Gordon Chang asks what Beijing wants.

But Jong-Un’s future is by no means assured. China probably wants him out of the way so that there can be a collective leadership. Moreover, ambitious generals and even-more-dangerous colonels could be scheming. Finally, Jang Sung-Taek may not want to relinquish power when Kim Jong-Il has passed from the scene, either naturally or otherwise.

The North Koreans might be choosing a successor this week, but it’s the Chinese and South Koreans who are fighting each other. Amid the consensus that Kim Jong-un will be the next “fat, ruthless” Kim family member to rule the DPRK, Gordon Chang asks what Beijing wants.

But Jong-Un’s future is by no means assured. China probably wants him out of the way so that there can be a collective leadership. Moreover, ambitious generals and even-more-dangerous colonels could be scheming. Finally, Jang Sung-Taek may not want to relinquish power when Kim Jong-Il has passed from the scene, either naturally or otherwise.

What should we be looking for this week? If Jong-Un is proclaimed successor at the party conference, we know his dad, Kim Jong-Il, is close to death. It’s not his father’s style to cede power quickly. It’s more likely the young son will be given one or more party posts. It’s even possible that the party machinery will be merely reorganized to allow the young Kim to build his power base. The last outcome would indicate continued resistance to Kim’s succession planning.

When Kim Il-Sung died of a heart attack—his son may have hastened death by preventing medical treatment—succession plans had been in place for a long time. Despite the North’s troubles then, the Great Leader was revered throughout the nation. Now, Kim Jong-Il is not nearly as well respected, and his succession planning has been haphazard. That means a smooth transition in this militant nuclear state is the least likely outcome in the years—possibly months—ahead.

Seoul hopes the Brilliant Comrade is as ruthless as he needs to be, to be a reformer, and and as fat as they dream, to corrupt him. But, the latest in a line of Conservative South Korean pipe dreams could crash into a Chinese wall of reality.

it is fair to say that numerous policy position papers on whether the despotic Kim regime could be overthrown were strongly influenced by the political climate of an individual government.

Under the right-wing Kim administration, which lasted from 1993 to 1998, North Korea analysts spent much time writing obituaries signaling the Kim dynasty’s demise. They were concerned only to see that a new North Korea would be left a workable state, preferably a democratic one, at least friendly to the South.

By contrast, there were very few cases of diagnosing the North as a time-bomb waiting to explode under the liberal Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments that reigned from 1998 to 2008, whose progressive policy began where the Kim Young-sam administration had failed. Relatively sympathetic to the ideals of the communist regime, proponents of the sunshine engagement policy were confident that the regime in Pyongyang would not wither.

The current Lee government, which took power in 2008, is a case in point. It has reverted to following a pattern similar to the right-wing Kim’s a decade earlier. In the eyes of Mr. Lee and his political cohorts, the sunshine policy decisively helped to extend the life of what they regard as the failed regime in Pyongyang. Corruption and distrust, they believe, have already become a national disease. These are infectious, like a pebble dropped into a still pond. Not surprisingly, therefore, Lee and his brain trust have tended to place a large bet on the collapse of what they regarded as an unsustainable gangster-state, radicalizing the people with the idea that leaving the Kims in power must be a bigger risk to the national security than replacing it.

Which is to say, we all need to take our southern hosts’ perspective this week skeptically.

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Filed under: East Asia, Korea, Military, Politics Tagged: china, dprk, kim jong il, kim jong un, lee myung bak, rok



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