The Balance of Power in the Region After Kim Jong-Il's Death

North Korea doesn’t really believe the offers of the international community of security in exchange for denuclearization. The country that they're most worried about is the United States.'s interview with Jeff Mankoff, Adjunct Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

What effect the death of Kim Jong-il may have on the balance of power in the region?

I don't think that the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will have a major effect on the direct balance of power in the region. The only way it will is if it contributes to instability inside North Korea, which leads to one of two things: either to more of an aggressive approach toward South Korea, Japan, the United States, as a way of consolidating support for the new leader; or second, some kind of internal power struggle in North Korea, which then leads to the breakdown of centralized control or a fragmentation of the North Korean regime. Other than that I don't think it will have a major impact on the balance of power.

What is your opinion about the future of the six-party talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula?

When it comes to the future of the six-party talks, I'm not terribly optimistic. The North Koreans will continue to try to use the talks as a way to get foreign aid by promising to take various steps with regard to their nuclear program. But when it comes down to it, they won't be willing to take the necessary steps that the international community is expecting of them, and the U.S. administration has said that they're not interested in playing that game where they have talks, North Korea makes promises in exchange for aid, and then never fulfils their promises. Even if Washington decides to re-engage, I don’t think the North Koreans are interested in using the talks for anything other than extracting assistance, so it will be the same cycle we’ve seen in the past.

Do you think that if China or any other country offers North Korea a security pledge it can agree to denuclearize and destroy its nuclear weapons?

North Korea doesn’t really believe the offers of the international community of security in exchange for denuclearization. The country that they're most worried about is the United States. I could imagine a scenario where the United States agrees to a settlement ending the Korean War, pledging not to use force against North Korea etc. But the whole history of the U.S. working with North Korea over the last 60 years, has been that there's not enough trust to make an agreement like that work. So I don't think that North Korea is particularly interested in giving up its nuclear weapons, both because it doesn't really trust the United States and because they discovered that its possession of nuclear weapons gives it a lever to get the economic assistance they need, and it would mean sacrificing that leverage by giving them up. Just look at what happened in Libya when Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program.

Some of the U.S. officials have said that diplomatic relations with North Korea can be installed in the case of a radical change in the domestic policy of North Korea. Сan the U.S.A. use the rise to power of a new young leader, to attempt to change the regime in the DPRK?

I don't think the U.S. really has the ability to change the regime in the DPRK. North Korea has proven that it's relatively impermeable to outside pressure, except perhaps from China, which has little interest in applying pressure because of fear that the regime could collapse. Moreover, there's no domestic opposition group like there was in Libya that can provide an alternative centre of power. We don't know enough about the internal dynamics of the regime, there may be groups in the military or elsewhere who want to change certain aspects of the way the government is run, but we don't know enough about them, if they even exist. They would be very cautious about reaching out to the United States, given the whole history of the Korean War and the general fear the regime manages to instil. I don't think they have the capability to change that regime through political means, I don't think we have the capability to change it through military means either because, one, we know that North Korea has nuclear weapons and two, because even the nuclear weapons aside, South Korea is very vulnerable. 

There's nothing that the United States or anyone else could do to prevent North Korea from launching an attack that would kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans in the event of war. So there's nobody in the United States that is really interested in having a resumption of violence in the Korean peninsula and, I don't think there's a mechanism that would bring about a change in the regime. The only possible means of bringing about change from outside would be for China to take the lead, but because Beijing has no desire for North Korea to collapse – since that would in the short-run trigger a flood of refugees, and in the long-run lead to a unified, pro-Western Korean state – Beijing is just not going to take on that role.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.