Judging by recent developments inside North Korea, however, clinging on to its nukes may not actually help prolong Kim Jong-il’s regime. The country’s unfolding economic catastrophe has clearly taken a toll on the regime’s legitimacy and durability—only the most desperate governments in history have resorted to outright confiscation of its people’s money. Seasoned analysts have also reported rising popular resentment against Pyongyang. Thanks to the sanctions imposed by the United Nations and other efforts to weaken Kim Jong-il’s regime, North Korea has failed to blackmail the international community into supplying more economic assistance.
More importantly, the Kim Jong-il regime, which has become a classic family dictatorship, is about to face its most difficult test of survival: succession. Stricken by a stroke not too long ago, Kim Jong-il is in frail health and his hold on power is certain to weaken. He appears desperate to install his 27-year old son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. Unfortunately for the Kim dynasty, this process is likely to end in failure. A review of transfers of power in modern family dictatorships (excluding traditional monarchies) shows that the chances of a successful succession from the first-generation dictator to his son are roughly one in four, and no grandson of a first-generation dictator has ever succeeded in taking over a regime and consolidating his power. . . .
As a result, many crucial questions remain unanswered. For instance, how should the United States and South Korea react if China sends combat troops into North Korea to conduct ‘humanitarian assistance’ missions? In all likelihood, Beijing will be tempted to do so if millions of refugees start fleeing into China. Which country will take the lead in securing nuclear materials? How will China respond to the crossing of the 38th parallel by South Korean and US forces? Who will take the lead in reaching out to Pyongyang’s post-Kim regime? What will be the collective security architecture after the Korean peninsula is reunified?
These critical issues are deemed too sensitive for US, Chinese, Japanese and South Korean government officials to discuss. As a result, few are thinking about these difficult issues, let alone exploring workable solutions that could help avoid a possible conflict between China and the United States over a collapsing North Korea and construct an enduring peace after the departure of the Kim dynasty. . . . . READ MORE