Avoiding a North Korean Nuclear Nightmare

As Kim Jong Un moves to consolidate control over North Korea, no one knows what policies he will pursue, or what will happen if his leadership is challenged from within.

Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un [Src: AP]

Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s enigmatic leader, died of a heart attack on December 17. He oversaw the development of the North’s nuclear weapons program, which conducted two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and continues today. Construction on a new nuclear reactor at Yongbyon that will use enriched uranium instead of plutonium is ongoing, and Pyongyang has completed a new missile launch base at Tongchang-dong, which boasts facilities for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Kim’s third son, Kim Jong Un, is expected to take power. Little is known about him or his policies. While he was appointed to high military and political rank in 2010, he did not have the same lengthy apprenticeship that Kim Jong Il enjoyed under his father Kim Il Sung. Whether his colleagues—generals with decades of experience—will respect and follow a man less than 30 years old with almost no experience is an open question. How the younger Kim will try to earn their respect is another one.

Kim Jong Un spent time in the West—studying in Switzerland—which has perhaps internationalized him and left him open to a dialogue that will one day lead to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. With that in mind, it is crucial to give the North every opportunity to resume negotiations toward that end. Unfortunately, it is likely that North Korea under Kim Jung Un will return to a pattern of provocation, as it did in 2010.

Just hours before the announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death, South Korean media reported that the North had tested a short-range missile off the east coast. The test was most likely unrelated to the announcement, but it is a reminder of when the North tested both its nuclear and missile capabilities in 2009, to the shock and frustration of its neighbors and the world. Kim Jong Un may calculate that more provocation will bring more respect from the small cadre of generals in power.

Understandably, South Koreans are increasingly outspoken about their security fears. However, some are even going so far as to call for the return of US tactical nuclear weapons (which were withdrawn in late 1991) or, more ominously, a nuclear weapons program of their own. Either option would be destabilizing to the region and a greater nuclear proliferation risk to the world.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario is one where North Korea tears apart under succession disputes, triggering a humanitarian and security disaster of unprecedented magnitude. In the confusion of a disintegrating state and mass exodus, it would be easy for one faction or another to seize North Korea’s nuclear devices and fissile material for power or profit. If that happens, interested buyers could include states or terrorist organizations seeking a nuclear shortcut. The international community—especially the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia—must cooperate to prevent this nightmare from becoming Kim Jong Il’s most terrifying legacy.

Melissa Hanham is a research associate in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Category: News