The most likely outcome of the sudden leadership change in North Korea is a more unstable North Korea that continues to rely on nuclear weapons and a close if awkward relationship with China, according to Professor Malcolm Cook, Dean of the School of International Studies at Flinders University and an expert on Northeast Asian security issues.
Writing for Al Jazeera, Professor Cook said China’s continued steadfast diplomatic and economic support for its only ally has protected North Korea and driven another wedge between China and South Korea, Japan and the United States.
“China undoubtedly is concerned that cutting North Korea adrift could hasten a chaotic regime collapse and an ensuing flood of refugees across the Tumen River,” Professor Cook said.
“A functioning North Korea that is friendly towards China also is more reassuring than a unified Korea under southern rule with good strategic relations with the United States and improving ones with Japan,” he said.
The premature ascension of Kim Jong-un immediately intensified concerns both about North Korea’s internal stability and Pyongyang’s proclivity towards military provocations.
“Some see that Kim Jong-un himself may instigate such military provocations to solidify his rule and to rally the population around his new leadership.
“It is widely believed that the two North Korean attacks on South Korea in 2010 were part of the early succession process from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un as a means to gain military support for the succession.
“The role of the military may even be stronger under Kim Jong-un if North Korea, as reported by Reuters, moves to a collective leadership model with Kim Jong-un, his uncle Jang Song Thaek and senior military leaders working together.”
Professor Cook said that beyond the heightened threat of more military provocations from North Korea and the great pressure this places particularly on South Korea to respond in kind, it is highly unlikely that General Kim Jong-un will deviate from his father’s most recent policies.
“Kim Jong-un’s weaker position means that he will have less or no room for compromise on key policy positions especially as to do so early in his term would be seen as disrespectful to his father,” he said.
“This is likely to be particularly true when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons program. This lack of room for compromise would be even greater if North Korea does adopt the collective leadership model.”
If the lack of movement on the nuclear issues turns out to be true then China will be the only regional power that will have a good chance to increase its influence over Pyongyang.
China has reacted quickly and comprehensively to the death of Kim Jong-il and has followed all of the proper protocol. President Hu Jintao, accompanied by his heir apparent Xi Jinping, and Premier Wen Jiabao have visited the North Korean embassy in Beijing to pass on their condolences. Beijing has also invited Kim Jong-un to visit China as the leader of North Korea.
“If Kim Jong-un accepts this invitation after a suitable period of mourning then it could be a sign that China will have more influence over North Korea than before. How the alliance relationship between North Korea and China progresses under the third generation of Kim leadership and the fifth generation of Chinese Communist Party leadership respectively will be one of the most important strategic issues in East Asia from 2012 onwards,” Professor Cook said.
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