What’s Next for North Korea?

December 18, 2011

GW associate professor Gregg Andrew Brazinsky talks about the future of the nation—and its implications for the U.S. and world—after the death of Kim Jong Il.

The death on Saturday of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, 69, has raised many questions about the long-term sustainability of the isolated country, its international relationships and nuclear ambitions.

Gregg Andrew Brazinsky, a GW associate professor of history and international affairs, spoke with George Washington Today about the potential aftermath, including North Korea’s new leadership and the United States’ response.

Q: What does Kim Jong Il’s death mean for North Korea?
A: The most likely result of Kim Jong Il’s death in North Korea is uncertainty and instability. Kim Jong Il’s successor Kim Jong Un has not been groomed extensively to take the reins of leadership as his father was. He is under 30 years old, and I doubt that he will be able to unify the North Korean military and the leadership of the Korean Worker’s Party. This could create a power struggle in North Korea.

Q: What does it mean for the U.S.? What, if any, role will the U.S. have with North Korea going forward?
A: It is still uncertain what the posture of the new Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) government toward the United States and its allies will be. In the short term, the United States needs to make sure that the atmosphere of political instability and uncertainty in the DPRK does not lead it to any provocations that threaten its neighbors. Washington also needs to do everything possible to assure that any instability that results from Kim’s death does not create possibilities for the proliferation of nuclear technologies. In the long run, the United States should seek to engage the new DPRK political leadership and try to prevent the country from relying too completely on the People’s Republic of China.

Q: What do you expect U.S. officials are doing in the immediate aftermath of this news?
A: So far, the Obama administration seems to be taking the news in stride. It is doubtless conferring with U.S. allies in Seoul and Tokyo. South Korean intelligence probably has the most detailed understanding of the situation and its implications. The U.S.-South Korea alliance has tightened under the leadership of South Korea’s pro-U.S. president, Lee Myung Bak.

Q: President Lee was a visiting scholar at the GW School of Business in 1999 and received an honorary Doctor of Public Service in 2009. What does this death mean for him?
A: I think the South Korean president likely has two key concerns. The first is the security of South Korea. South Korean forces have already been put on a heightened state of alert. President Lee and his advisors will have to watch closely to be sure that any instability that ensues in North Korea does not lead to provocations against South Korea or misunderstandings between the two governments. President Lee will also want to pay attention to the potential economic impact of Kim’s death.

Q: What would Kim Jong Un’s leadership bring?
A: Again, it’s hard to say. I do think the North Korean leadership understands that the United States and its allies will respond strongly to any provocations. At the same time, the DPRK leadership is probably nervous that the U.S. will see the transition as a sign of weakness and may want to make it clear that this is not a time for the West to put pressure on the regime.

Q: Do you expect to see any changes in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions?
A: I don’t see much change in this area. I expect more of the same with the DPRK continuing to negotiate but, in the end, always seeking to preserve and slowly enlarge its nuclear program.

Q: Do you foresee any immediate trouble for nearby nations or the U.S.?
A: The uncertainty has already had some impact in Seoul where markets dived on the threat of instability after South Koreans learned the news. The U.S. would certainly come to the defense of South Korea if it is attacked. If there is more enduring instability in North Korea it would present the United States and its allies with a tricky situation. On the one hand, they would want to avoid a war. On the other hand, they would not want to see China move in to fill a political vacuum.

Professor Gregg Andrew Brazinsky