Nukes, Trade and Tensions: Legacy of Kim Jong Il

The hearty welcome North Korea extended to American basketball star Dennis Rodman was in stark contrast to the icy rhetoric it employed in unilaterally ceasing operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Indeed, the regime’s seemingly incongruous approach to diplomacy is raising serious questions over the future direction of the country. What could account for these contradictions?

First and foremost, no assessment of the current state of the North Korean regime would be complete without a closer look at the legacy of Kim Jong Il. Although nearly two years have passed since his death, Kim’s status and influence in North Korea remain absolute, and his activities in the three-year period between his stroke in 2008 and death in 2011 provide some insight.

Kim Jong Il’s first move post-stroke was to officially appoint a successor. This was done presumably to avoid confusion should he suddenly pass away. In any case, Party cadres were informed in 2009 that Kim’s third son, Kim Jong Eun, would rise to rule the country.

Kim’s second move was to step up his dogged pursuit of ballistic missiles and nuclear arms. It remains plausible that the ailing Kim Jong Il ordered the early execution of tests in 2009 in order to be able to view the results before he died. Regardless, despite its third stage failure, the April 2009 missile launch was considered a great success. It was followed by a nuclear test on May 25th, 2009, a test of significantly greater proportions than North Korea’s prior attempt in 2006.

Third, Kim focused his energies on maintaining the close Sino-North Korean relationship. Given step two, this was not simple. China had voted to intensify UN sanctions against North Korea in the wake of the 2009 nuclear test. Nevertheless, the relationship did not deteriorate to the depths some had rashly anticipated, partly thanks to Kim’s efforts.

The Chinese held a Central Leading Group for Foreign Affairs (CLGFA) meeting in 2009 to form North Korea policy. After much debate, it was decided that China would continue to provide support to North Korea while separating nuclear weapons issue from its other dealings with the country. High-level officials continued to visit the North, maintaining a congenial attitude out of concern that the regime would collapse if aid were cut completely. Historically, too, North Korea has not responded well to strong-arming, and China knew this.

At the same time, North Korea made overtures to China. Kim Jong Il made several trips to the country in a relatively short space of time not long after his stroke. This would have been an unusual move for any world leader, let alone the visibly ailing Kim. At the same time, bilateral trade and personnel exchanges between the two countries both rapidly increased. Cross-border trade leapt from $2.68 billion dollars in 2009 to $5.93 billion in 2012. From 2010 to 2011, Sino-North Korean trade increased at a rate of no less than 62%.

In the end, Kim Jong Il saber-rattled his way to the grave. While not a new phenomenon, provocations aimed at South Korea grew more severe in the period. The shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the South Korean vessel the Cheonan were undertaken with no apparent pretext. While previous provocations in the West Sea had at least been made under the guise of the ongoing dispute over the Northern Limit Line, North Korea never did reason out its actions in 2010.

There are many guesses on the table as to why this was. Some believe that Kim wished to shore up the stability of his regime, and that, fearing domestic instability as the country moved toward reform egged on by China, provocations against the South may have seemed an inevitable cost of doing business.

Further motivations may have included the changing Northeast Asian atmosphere in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear weapons drive, the burgeoning Chinese military, or a desire to test the waters for a reaction from the major East Asian players. It is not even beyond the realm of imagination that Kim Jong Il may have foreseen domestic unrest, too, and ratcheting tensions was his attempt to keep this at bay. In any case, growing tensions on the peninsula successfully strengthened the Kim family’s control over the military and the citizenry, which in turn could be used to expand the influence of son and heir, Kim Jong Eun.

Present day North Korea appears to be continuing Kim Jong Il’s legacy. The country is developing nuclear and ballistic weapons systems while preserving its close political and economic relationship with China.

To be continued…