There are three things to keep in mind about Kim Jong Il’s death.
First, he was a vicious and cruel man. He enriched himself and his cronies as the North Korean people suffered through famine, forced labor, and other cruelties. Kim ran a mafia-state that profited off of a variety of criminal enterprises. He took advantage of his democratic adversaries’ unwillingness to take him on, and made money by selling illegal narcotics, weapons, and counterfeit goods and dollars on the international black market. He made the world a more dangerous place through his ruthless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic weapons. He killed South Koreans in cold blood and kidnapped Japanese citizens. Meanwhile, we and our friends bailed him out time and again. Every time the regime was on the brink of collapse we offered Kim new packages of money and aid, with which he lined his pockets and paid for his nuclear ambitions. The worst offender in this regard was China, but for more than 17 years we played our part in enabling his continued rule.
Second, we should take no comfort in his succession, probably by his son. It was during Kim Jong Un’s apprenticeship that North Koreans sank the South Korean ship the Cheonan and shelled South Koreans on Yeonpyeong island. The younger Kim will need to show his toughness to the military and will likely engage in more atrocious acts in the years to come. Things will not get better either for North Koreans or for us as long as this regime is in place. Their survival now depends upon their nuclear program. We have taught them that as much as they provoke we are seemingly unable to be provoked — they can test a weapon, kill our allies, and disregard agreements without paying a price. Their nuclear-weapons program has given them what they want: insurance against American or allied pressure to change. The Kim family is invested in the current criminal, repressive state. And why not? They have become rich and stamped out any opposition. And they are a de facto nuclear state. They simply want official recognition of that status.
Third, given the regime’s internal logic — nuclear weapons are the state’s highest priority — there is no hope of persuading the Kim family to give up its programs, stop its illicit activity, or end its cruelty. We must avoid all temptations to “probe” the new leader’s intentions or “discover” whether he can be dealt with. We have tried and failed at “probing intentions” for a couple of decades. We are not in a period of uncertainty — we know what the Kim family wants. The only “uncertainty” is what it always was: When and how will the next dangerous act occur? Our policy should be regime change, gradual and patient if necessary, but unrelenting pressure until the Kim family collapses and members of the Party or the military are ready to negotiate radical reform and then unification under the rule of the Republic of Korea.
— Dan Blumenthal is resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.