Kim Jong-il's death: Don't look for swift change in North Korea
The death of 'dear leader' Kim Jong-il is unlikely to produce great change in North Korea in the short term, and successor Kim Jong-un may find it difficult to consolidate power. In the long term, the Kim monarchy will collapse and the Korean peninsula will be reunited.
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North Korea has the paradoxical “power of the weak.” In certain bargaining situations, as I argue in The Future of Power, weakness and the threat that a partner will collapse can be a source of bargaining power. A bankrupt debtor who owes $1,000 has little power, but if it owes $1 billion, it may have considerable bargaining power – witness the fate of institutions judged “too big to fail” in the 2008 financial crisis.Skip to next paragraph
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As the Financial Times once observed, Kim Jong-il “is probably the only world leader who can make Beijing look powerless…Diplomats say Mr. Kim brazenly plays on Chinese fears. If the Chinese do not pump aid into his crumbling economy, he argues, they will face refugees pouring across the border and possible unrest.”
The net result is likely to be a resumption of efforts to bring North Korea back to the table at the six-party-nuclear talks that were suspended after the second Korean nuclear test in 2009. This can be a useful step in trying to coordinate diplomatic reactions among Washington, Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, and Seoul, but one should not expect much from the talks. The main feature of the coming months is likely to be uncertainty about the future of the Korean regime.
This piece first appeared on the Power & Policy blog at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.