Tuesday, January 03, 2012

East Asia: The Guessing Game About East Asian Security

By Rajaram Panda and Victoria Tuke*
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) - The demise of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il on December 17, 2011 has introduced a new dimension to the security situation in Northeast Asia. His death, it is feared, will make the situation in the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia worse. Though the fragility of peace is a cause of concern, it does not warrant any rash intervention by the international community, particularly the Big Four – the US, China Japan and Russia. What is needed at the moment is the exercise of restraint by the Big Four as they watch the new situation unfold and that they act in close cooperation to prevent any crisis in view of the power vacuum.

So far, the transfer of power to Kim's youngest son Kim Jong-Un appears to be smooth. However, there is an element of uncertainty lurking behind this transition of power. Security analysts and Korea watchers are forecasting grim scenarios. Though none of these are likely to occur in the near term, the uncertainties are likely to continue for quite some time.

One of the questions being asked is: Will something similar to what happened in China after Mao's death on September 9, 1976 happen in North Korea? Mao’s death was quickly followed by the arrest of the Gang of Four; Mao's wife too was arrested four months later. His death precipitated China's embrace of economic reforms.

One may not expect such a thing to happen in North Korea in the immediate future. This is because the state is too authoritarian and reclusive with rigid information control with prevents clamour of freedom by the people.

The second question is, will the Arab Spring spread to North Korea? With the military's hold firmly in place, this seems to be unlikely scenario too. During Kim Jong-Il's time, the regime in Pyongyang surely had a plan in place for the April 15, 2012 100th anniversary of founder Kim Il-sung.

After the respectable pause for mourning, the new leader is expected to proceed along the already agreed structured plans. The US and South Korea will hold the presidential elections in November and December 2012 respectively and this will surely be factored in Pyongyang’s strategy of consolidation of power.

This could mean continuing talking with the US to get food aid, and also opening up to South Korea, for economic considerations. However, it is unclear whether this would lead to eventual resumption of the six-party talks.

On the other hand, the other extreme is also a possibility. After a quiet transition in leadership, the North might carry out additional provocations as a means of demonstrating the younger Kim's authority. The two attacks in March and November 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans were suspected to be engineered by Kim Jong-Un as part of a strategy for strengthening his position ahead of his assumption of power.

Along with a massive conventional military, the North is believed to hold enough plutonium for fewer than 10 nuclear weapons, though it has not demonstrated the capacity to convert nuclear warheads to missiles or bombs.

The Stalinist state is also reported to hold thousands of tons of chemical warfare material and an active biological weapons program. It is believed to possess eight nuclear weapons but to destabilise the region, even one is enough.

Nuclear Arsenal

The big question centers on the future of nuclear arsenal. The real issue to worry about is who retains control over the hermit nation's nuclear weapons or authority for their potential use. Whose finger can now access the veritable trigger over the nation's deliverable weapons, if there are any?

So little is known about the secretive regime's nuclear arsenal that even the best-informed Korea experts are reluctant to speculate what command-and-control changes might be afoot now that Kim is gone. The nuclear arsenal can be a key asset for the new regime to consolidate its domestic support base and assert itself internationally. But it could also play a role in succession struggle, if Kim Jong-Un fails to assert his political authority.

According to Military Balance 2011 (by the International Institute for Strategic Studies – IISS), North Korea has 1.2 million people on active duty (1.02 million army personnel, 60,000 navy and 110,000 air), plus 189,000 active paramilitary personnel and further 600,000 reservists.

There are also 5.7 million reservists in the worker/peasant Red Guard, which is compulsory to the age 60.20 Pyongyang is also suspected to have a submarine capable of launching a "suicide" nuclear attack.

North Korea is paranoid about the outside world and believes that it needs nuclear weapons for deterrence. But the political elite probably will realise that use of the nuclear weapons would mean its own immediate destruction.

Any developments in the nuclear impasse are not likely to occur before spring or summer of 2012. That would provide the nation with time to move past the death of Kim Jong-Il and for setting up the new power structure giving enough time to Kim Jong-Un to consolidate power and establish his legitimacy.

It is anybody's conjecture about North Korea's possible future. Eventual collapse could be a possibility but no time frame can be put for that to happen. Reunification of the two Koreas is desirable but does not seem to be in the horizon.

Should the new regime decide to be adventurous and launch a military strike on its southern neighbour with a view to signal its control at the helm, it is likely to elicit a commensurate military response from South Korea as Pyongyang would have breached the tolerance threshold. The situation would soon get out of control and necessitate the involvement of other countries.

On the other hand, should the new leader not behave irrationally and introduce market reforms and allow North Korea to be embraced by the outside world it would augur well for North Korea's future. But if instability continues and threat perceptions further heighten with little hope for reconciliation, South Korea and Japan could review their nuclear options. Thus, the future of East Asian security would largely be shaped by developments that unfold in the Korean peninsula.

* Dr. Rajaram Panda is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Victoria Tuke from the University of Warwick was Visiting Fellow at IDSA. This article is based on IDSA's Issue Brief. Picture: Kim Jong-Un with the party Central Military Committee in Pyongyang Credit: (North) Korea News Service