Added by Nigel Shelbourne on December 19, 2011
The sudden death of Kim Jong-il changes North Korea – with Kim senior we knew where we were to some extent. Anything, from the benign to apocalyptic, is possible at this point.
While world leaders want North Korea to embrace peace and reform, the Kim regime is committed to its military-first policy even though the country has a lot to lost from any break from peace.
South Korea could have been a key player, yet North Korea sank a Southern ship and shelled an island last year, creating a vacuum filled by China instead.
China is expected to press North Korea for economic reforms and boosting its fragile economy is a way for Kim Jong-un to make himself more popular. The fear is the country may choose to increase its profile through provocation.
Provocation could be in the form of a new nuclear test or long-range missile launch. With two upcoming elections, President Lee cannot afford to appear to weak with.Seoul likely to strike back risking escalating hostilities.
South Korea, and its Japanese and US allies are likely to be concerned about the possibility of instability in North Korea since Kim Jong-un’s succession may not be successful. While North Korea presents itself behind a facade of unity, it’s questionable whether North Korea’s key people will entrust their future to an untried youth.
Another possibility is that military hardliners could seize power of they fear their privileges of the old system are at risk. North Koreans won’t have any say in the matter, yet their suffering could louden their political voice. If the country becomes unstable factions my seek help from China, Russia, or possibly South Korea, creating conditions for a dangerous flashpoint.
In what will already be a fragile transition, the prospect of US and Chinese forces confronting each other on the peninsula is not worth consideration; one Korean war was more than enough.
Anything is possible in North Korea, leaving the world little choice but to watch and hope a bad situation does not become worse. Discreet consultation between Seoul, Washington and Beijing is essential, yet don’t expect to hear about their top-secret discussions.