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Coping with Change on the Korean Peninsula: The Beginning of the End of the Status Quo

An Interview with Chung Min Lee

By David Schlangen and Allen Wagner
February 9, 2012


Strategic Asia 2011–12: Asia Responds to Its Rising Powers—China and India is the eleventh volume in the Strategic Asia series and explores how key Asian states and regions are responding to the rise of China and India.

NBR spoke with Chung Min Lee, Strategic Asia contributing author and Dean of the Graduate School of International Studies and the Underwood International College at Yonsei University, to assess the North Korean leadership transition and its implications for regional security and diplomacy.


Can you briefly discuss the current leadership transition in North Korea?

Today, we are seeing a new type of leadership emerge in North Korea. For the first time since the founding of the DPRK in 1948, the leadership is basically collective in nature. Kim Il-sung, the first leader of North Korea, died in 1994; his son, Kim Jong-il, assumed power that year and held office until he died last year. Kim Jong-un, who is believed to be 29 or 30 years old, is now the titular leader of North Korea, but he depends critically on the armed forces, the intelligence agencies, the security apparatus, and in particular, the entire Kim family. And so, regardless of whether he is able to secure power in the months and years ahead, we are venturing into a very different transition in North Korea today.


In your chapter "Coping with Giants: South Korea’s Responses to China’s and India’s Rise" from Strategic Asia 2011–12, you mention the “Pandora’s box that will be opened if reunification dynamics [on the Korean Peninsula] shift from the conceptual to the operational realm” (p. 162). Does this leadership transition in the North bring the possibility of reunification closer to reality or does the transition make reunification more difficult to imagine?

If we define reunification as a legal entity, in other words the emergence of a unified Korean state, that would obviously take time, and I’m not exactly sure when that will transpire. But if we define reunification as a process whereby the political system in North Korea begins to change and whereby the groundwork for reunification accelerates, I believe that we are entering into the beginning of the end of the North Korean system as we know it. In that particular sense, the reunification process has already begun—simply because the political nature of the regime in North Korea is going to change. With that change, we are going to see a series of political perturbations in North Korea that will result over time in some type of a regime change, if not regime collapse. Somewhere down the road, we will see a type of a political union that will ultimately result in a reunified state.


You note in your chapter that South Korea has traditionally maintained a “paradoxical inter-Korean policy, pursuing simultaneous deterrence and engagement” (p. 164). Do you see the need for balance between deterrence and engagement changing with the death of Kim Jong-il?

Absolutely. This is one of the key hallmarks of inter-Korean ties that foreign readers and experts at times simply don’t understand. South Korea has an existential enemy or adversary just 50 miles from its national capital. On the other hand, South Korea has no choice but to engage with this particular regime, whether it’s in economic, political, or other terms. So deterrence, engagement, or a mixture of those two policies will be in place even after Kim Jong-il’s death.

Although the North Koreans have said as of the beginning of this year that they do not want to do any business with the Lee Myung-bak administration, they’re going to wait until the new government comes into office in February 2013, especially if the opposition wins the election in December of this year. Regardless of which government comes into power in South Korea, it will have no choice but to emphasize deterrence and engagement. It’s not really [a case of] either or, but a combination of both strategies.


How do you think the leadership transition occurring in North Korea will affect South Korea’s foreign policy outlook?

I think there’s a body of opinion in South Korea today that says we have to engage more fully with the North Koreans, but I think a large number of Koreans also understand that the nature of the regime in North Korea is very different than it was even five months or a year ago. For the first time, we have a very uncertain regime in North Korea. On the outside, everything looks basically stable and secure. The North Koreans have forged critical ties with the Chinese, and Beijing has offered support for the new leadership in North Korea. On the other hand, I would argue that the status quo is not going to be maintained forever on the Korean Peninsula. I think South Korean policy has to take into consideration the chances of change in North Korea, and the chance that the status quo could end. South Korean ties with the United States and Japan, as well as Chinese ties with North Korea, will reflect that change.


How have South Korea, China, the United States, and Japan prepared for the potential collapse of North Korea? Are these preparatory actions sufficient? If not, what else should be done?

For the last 10 to 15 years, the South Korean, United States, and Japanese governments have been talking about this particular issue on and off, and it has come to the forefront since the death of Kim Jong-il. Whether North Korea collapses or not is a guess—nobody can really forecast directly or precisely. This issue is also very politically sensitive because regardless of one’s political stances in South Korea—whether you’re on the left, on the right, or in the center—declaring that North Korea is going to collapse is basically not tenable. Having said that, all of these governments are preparing for some type of regime change, if not some type of a collapse, in North Korea. There are military contingency plans that are being considered by the United States and South Koreans primarily, but the Japanese are also involved in those discussions, though not as direct partners. Of course, the big question is what the Chinese will do if regime collapse comes to fruition. Not only is it critical that the United States, South Korean, and Japanese governments see eye-to-eye on the type of change they want to see on the Korean Peninsula, they also have to get the Chinese and, parenthetically, the Russians involved in the process. None of these so-called five-party members want to talk directly and officially about state or regime collapse because it is so politically sensitive, but everybody is preparing for some type of change in North Korea. Again, the South Korean, United States, and Japanese governments’ stances on this particular issue are the most critical.

In addition, one of the key critical issues is who will control North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, including its nuclear program and assets. That is one of the most important security questions. Any type of contingency planning vis-à-vis North Korea has to factor that into the equation. Nobody wants to see a unified Korea with nuclear weapons. The South Korean government has held steadfast to a non-nuclear policy for the past 30 years, and that’s not going to change. One of the key common denominators in contingency planning for North Korea is making sure that if and when the regime collapses, there will be some type of body able to control and ultimately dismantle all North Korean nuclear or WMD assets.


You predicted in your chapter that during a political transition "maintaining the status quo is unlikely to prevail as the basic policy of inter-Korean relations and the strategy of the surrounding powers” (p. 170). However, China seems to be supporting the leadership transition, whereas the United States and South Korea have remained largely quiet. Is the status quo being reinforced, is there change on the horizon, or is it too soon to know?

I would argue that the status quo is something South Koreans have been living with for the last 60 years, ever since the end of the Korean War. North Korea tests and provokes the South from time to time, as we saw in 2010, when the North sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors, and later shelled a South Korean island for the first time, killing several civilians and military personnel. The status quo is going to change simply because the nature of the regime in North Korea is changing. If that’s the case, as I said before, the entire strategic equation on the peninsula has to change. On the outside, North Korea appears fairly stable. It gets 70 percent of its assistance in terms of food, oil, and other critical needs from the Chinese. But at some point in time, internal contradictions to the regime are bound to accelerate, and if that happens we will see the end of the status quo. I cannot really forecast at this particular time when the status quo will change, but my personal view is that we have already into the post-status-quo era on the Korean Peninsula.


You mention in your chapter that North Korean–Pakistani exchanges of nuclear and missile technology represent one issue on which India and South Korea can engage in strategic coordination. Does the current situation in North Korea change how India and South Korea cooperate in the security arena? Furthermore, what are the implications of the leadership transition for North Korea’s relationship with other countries outside of East Asia, such as Pakistan?

Room for coordination and cooperation between South Korea and India continues to grow, especially after the death of Kim Jong-il, because the North Koreans have not yet indicated whether they are going to downgrade their ties with Pakistan, which is a key threat to India. South Korea is also concerned about potential North Korean ties with the Iranian regime. There have been a number of visits by Iranian officials and scientists—and vice versa—and so as Iran moves down the road to securing some type of a nuclear program, the general perception in South Korea today is that the Iranians have benefitted from this relationship with the North Koreans. So whether it’s Iran or Pakistan, South Korea is doubly concerned. In that particular case, the Indians have a major role to play. This is one area where Indian and South Korean foreign policy and security consultations will continue at the highest levels.

Whether or not the leadership transition in North Korea will be the cause, I believe its ties with other East Asian countries will change North Korea’s relationship with Burma as Burma moves along the path to reform. I think Pakistan is basically open to question. The North Koreans do not want to give up their niche market with the Pakistanis, but as Pakistan’s situation worsens in some respects, I think North Korea’s room for maneuverability in East Asia is also going to become narrower in the years ahead. This is a bankrupt economy with huge armed forces, nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction, but other than those particular assets, North Korea has nothing to show in East Asia or in the rest of the world. North Korea’s foreign policy is going to become more dependent on China in the months and years ahead.


Seoul is hosting this year’s Nuclear Security Summit in March after the United States hosted the previous event. What kind of role will the talks have in the discussion of North Korea’s nuclear program and in peninsular affairs?

South Korean president Lee Myung-bak actually invited the North Koreans to come to the Nuclear Security Summit, and, of course, the North Koreans basically said “no.” I think this is one of the most important landmarks in U.S.–South Korean strategic cooperation because the South wants to ensure that peaceful dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and wants to show the entire world that South Korea is wholly and fully committed to a nonproliferation regime on the peninsula and beyond. I think once all of the heads of state and government converge here in Seoul for the Nuclear Security Summit in March, South Korea will be able to show the world that not only is South Korea committed to nonproliferation, it also wants to bring North Korea to the negotiation table, such as at the six-party talks. I think once South Korea begins to build this international message to North Korea, China, and even Russia, it will be understood that, until North Korea chooses the road of peaceful denuclearization, there will be huge costs to pay. As we are seeing with the sanctions regime on Iran, there are high opportunity costs for any regime that defies the international norm. So in that particular sense, I believe the Nuclear Security Summit is going to be a very important landmark for nonproliferation on the peninsula and beyond.


David Schlangen and Allen Wagner are interns at NBR. Recent graduates of the University of Washington, David holds a BA in Korea Studies and Allen holds a BA in Asian Studies and Political Science.