by Stephen Bryen
In December 2013 I wrote for this blog an article called “What really Happened in North Korea.” I was focusing on the hasty seizure of Jang Song Thaek off the floor of the North Korean assembly, a sort of trial and his immediate execution. Since then the executions at the leadership level in North Korea have grown, with Jang Song Thaek’s colleagues and family members, and now his prominent wife Kim Kyong-hui, the daughter of North Korea’s founder Kim il Sung reportedly poisoned, although unnamed North Korean officials say that is not true. The latest atrocity was the execution using anti-aircraft weapons of North Korea’s Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol around April 30th. The Defense Minister was accused of falling asleep on some official occasions and also using harsh words in speaking to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. There is no official word yet on the actual charges against Hyon Yong-chol but the South Korean intelligence agency reports that the execution was witnessed by more than 100 people. This is in the well-known pattern of North Korean state executions where families of the victim or victims are forced to watch the killings.
The North Korean pattern of official murders is rather different from the technique used in China and in the Soviet Union.”In China and Stalin’s Russia the purpose of the purges and trials was primarily the consolidation of power. The trials served the purpose of discrediting political factions and movements, creating a justification for the action of the state in making the arrests, and produced an aura of fear among those would-be opponents of the regimes. In Russia the purges of the old Bolsheviks morphed into the massive Great Purge that led to millions of deaths and a chain of prisons known as the Gulag Archipelago (the title of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous book).”
The North Korean leader unlike his Soviet and Chinese analogues, is in much more desperate shape than either Mao or Stalin were. They were using show trials to consolidate power: Kim Jong-un is using executions to try and hold onto power. There is a huge difference, and the outcomes also are likely to be quite the reverse of what happened in Russia and China.
North Korea’s leader may not survive much longer. Assuming that he will soon wind up dead, most likely by assassination since that is the most “neutral” way to get rid of him, it is worth assessing what will happen next.
It is likely that a military leader or a group of military leaders will initially take control of North Korea. Probably their first step will be to liquidate the Kim il Sung dynasty, meaning to kill off any remaining family members and relatives. This, in turn, will set the stage for a power struggle over who the actual successor will be. The factions will look for outside support.
There are three candidates for outside support. China will be pushed to play a role, but there are risks should China line up with the loser in any power struggle. Russia also is a candidate, and even though Putin has an expansionist mind, there is little he can gain from engaging in North Korea. The candidate with the strongest interest is South Korea, but South Korea has to be extremely careful lest it get involved in a civil war in North Korea.
South Korea’s long term interest is Korean unification. Korean unification would immediately make Korea (north and south combined) into a significant nuclear power. But it would be a very costly and tricky process of reintegration, far more difficult than the dissolution of East Germany and its integration into a unified German state.
One of the dangers of a long period of instability in North Korea is the risk that a war could break out between North and South. An emerging North Korean leader might find it useful to start a war as a way of galvanizing the North Korean state and creating a useful emergency. Externalizing internal conflicts is a familiar tactic. Such a war would be highly destructive to both sides, would not be a rational action, but nevertheless is a real possibility under circumstances of extreme stress.
US Policy makers should be dusting off their contingency plans now. One step that seems almost a requirement is to put enough deterrent in place in South Korea such that any thought of starting a war will lead to dire consequences for any North Korean future leader.
Unfortunately the United States has been in such a great global retreat, that thinking about proactively preparing against the risk of destabilization on the Korean peninsula is unlikely to be a priority in a supine US government,. But the dangers for the United States also are significant. Should a disastrous war break out in Korea and America stand back unprepared, America’s position in Asia will be significantly diminished and her allies will have no choice but to make bad deals with China as the price for survival.