Editor’s Note: The following piece, exclusive to GPS, comes from Wikistrat, the world's first massively multiplayer online consultancy. It leverages a global network of subject-matter experts via a patent pending crowd-sourcing methodology to provide unique insights.
Reuters reported that North Korea’s government will shift – for now – to rule by committee instead of by an all-powerful leader. Most likely, a factional truce was worked out in advance of Kim Jong-il’s death.
This deal splits power among successor-son Kim Jong-un, a couple of regents from Kim Jong-il’s elderly generation and the North Korean military. It’s a generational split with the military as the fulcrum. This makes it inherently unstable. Young Kim’s coterie of supporters will want to expand their control over time, and Old Kim’s aged cohort won’t give up without a fight.
Kim Jong-il so mortgaged himself to the generals in his “military first” policy that they already hold most levers of power, including the all-important relationship with China regarding North Korea’s nearly $7 trillion’s worth of mineral wealth.
North Korea’s bankrupt regime, lorded over by the military, is letting Beijing strip the place clean of everything left worth buying - at bargain-basement prices. If Kim Jong-un goes along with this, China will most likely continue to support his spot on the ruling committee - or help him consolidate power unto himself.
Beijing will support whatever ruling package keeps the minerals flowing and North Korea’s half-starved population south of its border. Sure, China would like if somebody in authority eventually pulled off a Deng Xiaoping-like economic transformation in North Korea, liberalizing the economy, but on Beijing’s wish list, that places a distant third.
Given Kim Jong-il’s death, what possible futures lay ahead? Wikistrat, the world’s first massively multiplayer online consultancy, ran that scenario drill last February, updating our deathwatch calculations just a few weeks ago. Here’s the three narratives we’re playing with now:
- Best case: Slow liberalization-by-committee. In in this scenario, either Kim Jong-un or his uncle Jang Song-Thaek open North Korea to special economic zones, north and south, that let in, respectively, Chinese and South Korean direct investment. Over the years, the two neighbors achieve trustee-like control over North Korea that leverages China and South Korea’s financial heft. Meanwhile, North Korea opens up its doors and relaxes its economic and political constraints upon the population.
- Middle path: More of the same. In this scenario, the North Korean military steps back just enough to let Kim Jong-un’s generation wipe out the Old Guard over time, using the pretext of “foreign aggression” to stage the usual purges. As Beijing signs off, Kim Jong-un can prove he’s got the old man’s guts, successfully grab the reins of power and salute the generals with a reasserted “military first” policy. This way, China retains North Korea as a thorny prod to the U.S., which is committed to strategically “pivoting” to East Asia.
- Worst case: A Chinese-backed military dictatorship. If things get really bad, Beijing might simply extract all the mineral wealth it can before turning over the carcass of North Korea to South Korea and the Americans for the super-costly rehabilitation.
Spot Washington anywhere in these scenarios? You can’t.
Truth is, the Obama Administration painted itself into a corner. By sticking to its non-proliferation guns, the White House can’t take any real advantage of the succession process since any breakthrough diplomacy of the sort desired by both Pyongyang and Beijing (e.g., a peace treaty to finally end the Korean Conflict) would directly contradict the administration’s oft-stated desire to create a “world without nuclear weapons” (along with its decision to appear strong vis-à-vis the “rising Chinese threat” during an election year). Any peaceful overture to North Korea would enable the Republicans to demonize Obama for “caving in to nuclear blackmail.” Those attack ads simply write themselves.
Now, in Wikistrat style, we’d love to hear from you in the poll below. Which scenario do you find most likely. If you envision something different entirely, share it in the comment section below.
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