The Words of the Mansourov Family

Prospects for Stability and Security on the Korean Peninsula

Alexandre Mansourov
January 24, 2012
U.S.-Korea Institute, Johns Hopkins University, United States
Address to the International Leadership Conference, Seoul, Korea, January 2012

Three Myths

Myth No. 1: The North Korean regime is irrational and unpredictable. It will lash out at the time of the death of the supreme leader, who would rather commit national suicide than go away quietly. Therefore, the world can't allow Pyongyang to possess nuclear weapons because the North Korean regime is irresponsible, undeterrable, and suicidal.

Reality: The North Korean regime is rational and predictable. It is NOT suicidal, and it is quite deterrable.

Policy Implication: It may be OK to allow Pyongyang to keep its nuclear arms for defensive purposes. Hence, the goal of nuclear talks should be arms reduction, not disarmament and nuclear dismantlement.

Myth No. 2: The North Korean regime is stagnant, fragile, and unstable. Kim's successor is young and inexperienced, and he will not be able to hold onto power. The North Korean regime will collapse soon after Kim Jong-il dies. Hence, the West should not recognize Kim Jong-un or deal with his government.

Reality: Succession was consummated smoothly. Kim Jong-un is in full control. He is now regarded as the "Supreme Leader of DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea], the Workers' Party of Korea, and Korean people," and "Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army." Quick consolidation of power following a short mourning period is evidence of Kim Jong-un's self-confidence and strength, not weakness. The new regime is stable and dynamic.

Policy Implication: Kim Jong-un's regime is here to stay for many years, if not decades, to come. So, instead of ignoring or isolating it, the West should engage it and seek to shape its behavior in line with our policy preferences.

Myth No. 3: Only regime change can produce significant change in North Korea.

Reality: Although the governing regime centered on WPK has remained unchanged, despite the passing of Kim Jong-il and abrupt end of his personal rule, we already see the emergence of new faces in political life, new ideas in ideology and propaganda, and new policies in the socio-economic and cultural spheres.

Policy Implication: Instead of planning for contingencies and waiting for outright regime change as a result of elite schism or wholesale system collapse and replacement as a result of popular uprising or unification by absorption, we need to move beyond the nuclear diplomacy and food politics in relations with North Korea and engage it in a broader set of issues and venues, seeking to determine the priorities, define the agenda, and shape the policy preferences of its new leadership.

For instance, Pyongyang's announcement of amnesty on January 5 and opening of the AP press bureau in Pyongyang on January 16, 2012, are two very encouraging first steps in the right direction, and we need to capitalize on both.

Three prospects

1.Executing Kim Jong-il's inheritance in foreign policy means conservation of the current status-quo on the peninsula:

1.North Korea will maintain its hard line on the nuclear and missile issues vis-à-vis the United States, which may preclude the possibility of a major U-turn in DPRK-US relations towards normalization a la Burma.

2.Given Kim Jong-il's blessing, it will be easier for Kim Jong-un to deepen and widen North Korea's engagement with China and Russia and to proceed with the gas pipeline project, railway project, and debt settlement.

3.Kim Jong-il's death will make it more difficult to find a fast solution to a number of crucial issues in bilateral relations between North Korea and Japan because only Kim Jong-il knew their true origins, bore the ultimate personal responsibility for them, and single-handedly could decide on their settlement, especially on terms unfavorable to Pyongyang (as he did in 2001). Some of the DPRK's top secrets were buried in the grave together with Kim Jong-il.

1.Only Kim Jong-il knew the true story behind Pyongyang's campaign to abduct Japanese citizens in the late 1970s. Kim Jong-un knew nothing about these acts of state-sponsored terror (he was not even born at that time) and bears no personal responsibility for any of them.

Therefore, he can refuse to recognize them as politically important and deem them as "matters of the distant and irrelevant past." He is likely to refuse to condemn Kim Jong-il's historical legacy in foreign policy or to pay for his father's debts to other countries.

Therefore, unless Tokyo changes its hard line on the abduction issue, Kim Jong-un's historical blindness may complicate the prospects for the normalization of bilateral relations, especially with Japan.

Although as the first North Korean ruler who did not witness the Japanese atrocities first hand and who has a Korean-Japanese mother, Kim Jong-un in general may be more open to reconciliation with Japan.

2.Generational change at the leadership level will bring about changes in values, national priorities, and policy preferences in North Korea.

1.Continued lip service to unification: Kim Jong-un is the first North Korean leader who was not born in a united Korea. For him, the notion of united Korea is just an abstraction.

Therefore, although he may continue to pay lip service to the goal of Korean reunification, in reality, South Korea is just another foreign country for him, and it will be difficult to convince him of the value of Korean reunification.

2.More ad hoc but limited provocations: Kim Jong-un is the first North Korean leader who did not live through the bloodshed and devastation of the Korean War. Hence, this young leader may be more risk-prone and belligerent in the pursuit of his limited foreign policy goals, especially vis-à-vis the South.

3.Accelerated modernization drive: As someone who has been educated in capitalist Europe, Kim Jong-un will be open to new ideas in economic management and social policy. The new era of economic liberalization and marketization is coming to North Korea. This will put to test ROK's hard-line policy of isolation and sanctions.

3.Multilateral diplomacy has a good record of keeping the lid on inter-Korean tensions and preserving fragile peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, but its list of accomplishments in advancing Western strategic objectives such as complete verifiable and irreversible denuclearization and disarmament of DPRK and dismantlement of the communist regime in the north is almost empty.

North Korea under Kim Jong-un will pose as difficult a security challenge for the US-ROK alliance and US-Japan-ROK trilateral coordination as North Korea run by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Neither communist China nor Putin's Russia will concede North Korea to the West without a fight in the multilateral diplomatic fora and, in case of China, on the battlefield.


Under Kim Jong-un's leadership, the post-Kim Jong-il North Korea will become more dynamic, more pragmatic, and more nationalistic. Expect minor concessions in low-level issues and a continued hard line stance in high-stakes issues. 

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