Jeffrey LewisPersistent Engagement and DPRK Transition

Paul Carroll sends along a very thoughtful note (also published on the Ploughshares website) about the perils of waiting for North Korea’s apparent leadership process to play out.  Don’t get to clever, Paul suggests, because you just might miss your best chance and not even know it:

Transition or Transfer in North Korea?

Asia watchers are pouring over recent announcements from North Korea and speculating about their meaning.  While there is little doubt that things are afoot in Pyongyang, it is not exactly clear what.

The outside world in general and American observers in particular are extremely limited in their access to goings-on in the DPRK.  So, reports of new ranks and titles for Kim Jong Il’s young son, Kim Jong Un, and other members of his family have stirred up a blizzard of predictions about succession. One word keeps coming up that it is important to challenge – transition.

Most articles refer to a “leadership transition” unfolding in the North.  But we can’t know if we are witnessing a true transition – meaning a change in something – or if it is more accurate to assess this as a transfer of power.  The distinction is subtle but significant.  If the next few years see a relatively smooth and stable transfer of authority from Kim Jong Il to new leadership, with his son as the public face of it, and it is accepted internally, then we will have seen a transfer of power.

If, however, we are at the beginnings of a transition, that could be fraught with peril or hold great promise.  Is the “son” potentially a reformer and will he consolidate enough authority to go the distance?  Or will he seek to tighten an initially shaky grip by tried-and-true methods of authoritarianism and heavy-handedness?  We just don’t know.

The upshot with either case, though, is this:  our best strategy is to figure out entry points to engage with the North, especially during a potentially unstable period.  Our current approach seems to be “well, let’s wait and see how the transition goes” and then figure out what to do.  This passive approach risks too much; the chips that fall may be radioactive.  Instead, the United States should be seeking some type of seat at the table, or even at the back of the room, to help ensure that any transfer is as stable as possible.  Such engagement would also provide a better window on developments in Pyongyang.  Any increase in knowledge about goings on there would be a marked enhancement to what we know now.

Entry points could take the form of clear signals from the United States and its allies that it will not take advantage of a period of vulnerability to weaken or destabilize the North. Or it could be more concrete gestures such as offers of humanitarian food and agricultural aid – always welcome by the North.  When it comes to the North’s nuclear programs, the chief U.S. concern, there is a benefit in engaging now, while Kim Jong Il still retains authority.  He, after all, still sets DPRK policy and can have it “stick.”  We can’t be sure that new leadership will have the same credibility or authority in the near term, so why risk having even less of a toe hold?

Dealing with regimes as repugnant as North Korea is not easy from a moral standpoint, but in the long run if we want help the 23 million North Korean people improve their lives, and also improve the security situation in the region, we have to try.  Why play the day-to-day parlor game of who gets what rank, when we can join the longer-term endgame of persistent, patient engagement with North Korea to slowly but surely bring it into the community of nations.  That is the route to gain ground toward lasting security in the region, and ultimately the only way to eliminate its nuclear weapons.

Paul Carroll
Program Director
Ploughshares Fund


  1. 3.1415 (History)

    United States in the present form will always want to perform regime changes in countries that have a strategic real estate. The location of DPRK, like oil in Iraq, religions in Isreal/Palestine, dooms it to the Empire’s whip. The successive generations of Dear Leaders want to buckle the trend and be their own men. If Mao could do it, the Kims can pull it off, too, they figure. The Kims want to be remembered in history as the family who bring dignity to Korea. Once they secure their peace with the US and China, North Korea will introduce state capitalism from China and capital from the South. The Kims want to reunite Korea on their terms. Do the elected leaders in South Korea have the stamina and political longevity to compete on the North’s time scale? DPRK will never abandon its nuclear weapons program because only nukes induce respects and secure peace like nothing else in this world. The only way for the North to relinquish its nukes is a grand bargain between US and China. If US and China are on the same team, the DPRK will be gone, so are its nukes. There will be a united Korea which is part of the Northeast Asia Free Trade Zone and all USFK will be moved to Japan to strengthen USFJ. Unfortunately, United State does not have the luxury of leaving Japan from the moment it dropped the two bombs.

  2. Chad (History)

    Excellent points covered in this piece and a compelling case for why engagement is critical now, even if the U.S and ROK just regard it as “talks for the sake of talks”…