North Korea’s bombardment of South Korean-held Yeonpyeong Island killing 2 Marines and 2 civilians to protest military exercises in its contested maritime zone may have appeared completely irrational, though there is a method behind the madness – namely, survival of the Kim Dynasty in a period of rocky transition.
Kim Jong-Il’s succession of power to his third and youngest son, Kim Jong-Un has been deliberately volatile, with negative repercussions for South Korea, the U.S. and its regional allies.
In March of this year, a South Korean warship, Cheonan, was sunk by a suspected North Korean torpedo in the Yellow Sea about 40 miles west of Yeonpyeong, killing 46 Sailors. In July, dozens of U.S. and South Korean government and commercial websites were targeted in a web of cyber-attacks, acts also suspected of being carried out by North Korea.
In early November, North Korea allowed a team of scientists led by Sig Hecker, former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, to see some 2,000 new centrifuges – representing a major advance of its nuclear program at Yongbyon. Like its recent underground nuclear testing, this shows increased defiance of the international community.
So why is the succession of power causing such aftershocks?
As Kim Jong-Il held leadership posts for several years under his father and regime founder Kim Il-Sung, he was seen by his people as possessing legitimacy to lead the country upon his death in 1994, after a nearly 50-year reign. Both father and son are now worshipped in North Korea, as their images form part of daily life in a country that more closely resembles a cult.
By contrast, Kim Jong-Un has no such experience, nor the hero worship. In his late 20’s and educated in Switzerland, he is only roughly half his father’s age when the latter took power.
Kim Jong-Il’s brush with death via stroke in late 2008 accelerated his self-generated timeline to groom one of his son’s to keep the Kim Dynasty intact.
Since then, the “Dear Leader” concluded that his eldest two sons – Kim Jong-Nam and Kim Jong-Chul, were unsuitable to maintain the family’s grip on the country. Kim Jong-Nam was arrested at Japan’s Narita Airport in 2001 with a forged Dominican passport in an attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland, and Kim Jong-Chul is rumored to be too feminine.
On a fast track to bolster his youngest son’s leadership credentials, Kim Jong-Il in September appointed him a four-star General in the Korean People’s Army, the world’s fourth largest – despite having no military experience.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates precisely identified the underlying cause for North Korea’s increasingly aggressive moves in remarks made just weeks earlier, “One of the main worries I have about North Korea is that they appear to be starting a succession process, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Kim Jong-Il’s son, who wants to take over, has to earn his stripes with the North Korean military.”
Secretary Gates also accurately predicted that more trouble would likely follow. “My worry is that that’s behind a provocation like the sinking of the Cheonan. So I think we’re very concerned that this may not be the only provocation from the North Koreans.”
And while the democratically elected leaders of South Korea, the U.S. and its regional allies understand the costs of an all-out war with North Korea – likely millions of casualties and potential destruction of both Seoul and Pyongyang, Kim Jong-Il does not seem to share their concerns.
Like leaders of totalitarian regimes throughout history, Kim Jong-Il cares little about the welfare of his people. The abject poverty and isolation in which North Koreans live, a place where millions have starved in famines, while the Kim family enjoys a life of luxury speaks volumes about his mindset.
To Kim Jong-Il, if the Kim Dynasty is lost, then all is lost. North Korea might just as well go up in flames.
So what can be done to thwart Kim Jong-Il and his succession plans?
South Korean-U.S. military exercises should continue, as they demonstrate resolve and hone skills should war break out. China should be persuaded to bring more pressure to bear on Kim Jong-Il, though has appeared reluctant to do so fearing an internal collapse that could trigger a massive refugee crisis, among other factors. Widening international sanctions may also help, though North Korea is already about as isolated as can be.
In the near term, a balanced mix of sustained pressure, patience and perseverance may be the best option. If and when Kim Jong-Un rises to power, the young Jean-Claude Van Damme fan and skiing enthusiast might prove easier to deal with. When it comes to his father, could it get any worse?