North Korea’s unstable stability

The leadership change in Pyongyang will likely increase tensions on the Korean peninsula in 2012, writes author.

The power of North Korea’s military could increase under Kim Jong-un  [EPA]

The year 2012 was always going to be a momentous, tinged with fear, for the Korean peninsula with changes of authoritarian leadership in train in North Korea and China and presidential elections in South Korea and the United States. The sudden death of Kim Jong-il and his replacement by his chosen son, the relatively unknown twenty-something Kim Jong-un, at the end of 2011 has simply added to the importance of 2012 and the associated fears.

Since the first North Korean nuclear weapons test in 2006, the potential for conflict on the Korean peninsula and the fear of a chaotic regime collapse in North Korea have taken over from China-Taiwan relations as the region’s most worrying threat to peace and security. Over this last five years of Kim Jong-il’s 17-year reign, North Korea has become more belligerent, economically destitute and isolated at the same time that it has become a greater military threat. This threat is the only reason that North Korea gains the international attention it does.

Over this same time period, North Korea’s nuclear-tipped menace has stalled the six-party talks on denuclearisation and helped return the conservative Grand National Party to power in South Korea to the ironic chagrin of the North. Fears over North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and conventional threat have spurred Japan and South Korea to seek greater reassurance from the United States and to work more closely trilaterally on North Korean contingencies.

At the same time China’s continued steadfast diplomatic and economic support for its only ally has protected North Korea and driven another wedge between China and South Korea, Japan and the United States. China undoubtedly is concerned that cutting North Korea adrift could hasten a chaotic regime collapse and an ensuing flood of refugees across the Tumen River. A functioning North Korea that is friendly towards China also is more reassuring than a unified Korea under southern rule with good strategic relations with the United States and improving ones with Japan.

The premature ascension of Kim Jong-un immediately intensified concerns both about North Korea’s internal stability and Pyongyang’s proclivity towards military provocations. Some see that Kim Jong-un himself may instigate such military provocations to solidify his rule and to rally the population around his new leadership. It is widely believed that the two North Korean attacks on South Korea in 2010 were part of the early succession process from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un as a means to gain military support for the succession. The role of the military may even be stronger under Kim Jong-un if North Korea, as reported by Reuters, moves to a collective leadership model with Kim Jong-un, his uncle Jang Song Thaek and senior military leaders working together.

Beyond the heightened threat of more military provocations from North Korea and the great pressure this places particularly on South Korea to respond in kind – a pressure the South has so far sagely resisted – it is highly unlikely that General Kim Jong-un will deviate from his father’s most recent policies. Kim Jong-un’s weaker position means that he will have less or no room for compromise on key policy positions especially as to do so early in his term would be seen as disrespectful to his father. This is likely to be particularly true when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons program. This lack of room for compromise would be even greater if North Korea does adopt the collective leadership model.

If the lack of movement on the nuclear issues turns out to be true then China will be the only regional power that will have a good chance to increase its influence over Pyongyang. The fact that Kim Jong-il visited China three times in his last year of rule, including once reportedly with Kim Jong-un, underlines the importance of the alliance with China to North Korea. Kim Jong-il did not visit China in the first five years of his rule. Yet, as shown by the nuclear tests that clearly angered Beijing and North Korea’s refusal to adopt the Chinese economic model despite constant encouragement from Beijing, China’ influence over North Korea has been limited under Kim Jong-il despite China now accounting for 80 per cent of North Korea’s trade.

Recognising an opportunity, China has reacted quickly and comprehensively to the death of Kim Jong-il and has followed all of the proper protocol. President Hu Jintao, accompanied by his heir apparent Xi Jinping, and Premier Wen Jiabao have visited the North Korean embassy in Beijing to pass on their condolences. Beijing has also invited Kim Jong-un to visit China as the leader of North Korea. If Kim Jong-un accepts this invitation after a suitable period of mourning then it could be a sign that China will have more influence over North Korea than before. How the alliance relationship between North Korea and China progresses under the third generation of Kim leadership and the fifth generation of Chinese Communist Party leadership respectively will be one of the most important strategic issues in East Asia from 2012 onwards.

The most likely outcome of the sudden leadership change in North Korea is a more unstable North Korea that continues to rely on nuclear weapons and a close if awkward relationship with China. The leadership change in Pyongyang is unlikely to change the tensions on the Korean peninsula. It will more likely just strengthen them.

Professor Malcolm Cook is the Dean of the School of International Studies at Flinders University in Australia. He has written extensively on Northeast Asian security issues and has commented frequently on these issues in the Australian, regional and global media.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.