Most observers will see the death of Kim Jong Il as another risk in a year fraught with many. The markets have already responded with worry: Stocks have dropped in South Korea and Japan, and the dollar has jumped as investors seek refuge in a safe-haven currency. Yet an overabundance of caution created the Korea situation we find ourselves in today.
The world sought short-term stability at the cost of long-term sustainability by avoiding creative actions that could have facilitated change. The North Korean government could pose a greater danger now than it did prior to Kim’s death, as a power struggle will occur between a weak successor, Kim Jon Un, and a series of generals with greater experience and stronger factional support. It will be harder to criticize this new regime without a prominent leader who displays the easily mocked lifestyle excesses of Kim Jong Il, who, among many other extravagances, was the largest buyer in the world of Hennesy Paradis cognac for two years in the 1990s.
Rather than retreating to standard operating procedure and seeking to crown the new regime at the expense of the North Korean people, the U.S. and its allies could take inspiration from the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, who passed away on Sunday. Havel criticized the Communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe during the era of détente, when outreach to Moscow rather than support to those who would do away with the Soviet system was in vogue. In the short run, the Havelian approach did create additional instability. Protests flared in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Yet this temporary risk created one of the most stable zones in the world, economic growth for millions, and large returns on investment for investors and businesses over the last 20 years.
The North Korean people face a darker plight than the residents of Central Europe did, as Pyongyang’s truly totalitarian system has created an unprecedented health and demographic crisis. Yet these oppressed individuals enjoy the East German advantage. South Korea, which lifted itself out of poverty in the 20th century through economic growth, has the interest and applicable experience necessary to help the North Koreans prosper after the fall of dictatorship.
Nuclear weapons, many will say, make Northeast Asia different from Soviet-dominated Europe. Additional hazard about which the world cannot be cavalier does emerge from North Korea’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Yet it was under the dictatorial North Korean regime that nuclear-weapon development on the peninsula began and grew. Refusing to work toward the end of the North Korean regime supports the development of more nuclear weapons in Asia. The post-Soviet environment provides another useful example. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine did away with huge numbers of nuclear weapons by transferring them to Russia. A unified Korea could absorb the North’s nuclear weapons or give them up in exchange for reaffirmation of the current U.S. policy of a nuclear deterrent umbrella over Korea. Such a transition, of course, would require careful monitoring, coordination, and action by the armed forces and intelligence services of the U.S. and South Korea.
Creating a better outcome in the long term often requires working harder in the short term. For North Korea, this means avoiding the easy temptation to bless the new rulers and seeking to support those dissidents who pursue the end of one of the world’s most brutal governments. Havel’s legacy, millions of North Koreans trapped in horrific lives, and the long-term economic stability of Asia demand no less.
— Charlie Szrom is an associate at DC International Advisory.