Managing Instability on the Korean Peninsula

By Donald Gross

The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il gives rise to an urgent security issue in U.S.-China relations. Peace and stability in Northeast Asia now depend in large part on the ability of Washington, Seoul, and Beijing to diplomatically manage this crisis and prevent it from triggering a military conflict on the Korean peninsula.

It is not at all clear, at this point, whether a relatively smooth leadership transition or a collapse of the regime in North Korea will occur. Kim Jong-il had been grooming his 27-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, to become the country's future leader. There have also been reports that a "military council" would take over and manage the government (perhaps using Kim Jong-un as a figurehead) because of the son's inexperience and comparative youth.

Despite North Korea's planning for a leadership succession, some analysts believe a power struggle and the resulting fragmentation of the regime may well take place, now that Kim Jong-il is no longer able to assert control.

In recent years, the U.S. and South Korea have made contingency plans to move troops north of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas in the event of a collapse in North Korea's regime. Preventing a humanitarian disaster in the north has usually been the main justification for the planned intervention. The prospect of "loose nukes" - Pyongyang's lack of control over its small stock of nuclear weapons - is another rationale that Pentagon planners have often cited.

In South Korea, alongside the concern over instability in North Korea, persists the long-time desire of a hawkish faction to use Kim Jong-il's death to bring about near-term Korean reunification under South Korea's control. While a majority of the South Korean public fears instability on the Korean peninsula more than it desires immediate reunification, hawks remain influential in the national debate. It is not yet apparent whether South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak will side with the hawks in his party or take a more patient, long-term perspective.

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Donald Gross served as senior advisor in the U.S. Department of State and counselor of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Clinton administration.  He is author of “The China Fallacy:  Security, Economy and Politics in U.S.-China Relations” (Bloomsbury) forthcoming in 2012.

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