Here is the most informed American statesman on what's next for North Korea:
'The Great Successor' John Bolton
There's no guarantee that the North Korean military will accept another hereditary ruler.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il's death opens a period of intense danger and risk, but also potentially enormous opportunity for America and its allies. Kim's health had obviously been poor for some time, and his regime has worked to ensure an orderly transition to his son, Kim Jong Eun. The Kim family and its supporters, with everything obviously at stake, will work strenuously to convey stability and control. Indeed, the official North Korea news agency has already referred to Jong Eun as "the great successor to the revolutionary cause."
But the loathsome Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) is not a constitutional monarchy like Britain. While DPRK founder Kim Il Sung was powerful enough to impose his son, no guarantees exist that the North's military, the real power, will meekly accept rule by his utterly inexperienced grandson.
Under the surface in Pyongyang, the maneuvering has almost certainly already begun. There is no reason whatever to believe that opinion among the military leadership will be unanimous, either to support or oppose the regime's succession plan. In fact, the early reports are that Kim Jong Il's death went undisclosed publicly for days, perhaps indicating a power struggle already under way. Many generals may simply not accept that Leader 3.0 is competent or merits their support.While an authoritarian DPRK state, armed with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, is a threat regionally and globally, a fractured DPRK, leaderless and perhaps descending into civil war, is an even greater threat. The prospect of conflict among various military and other security forces, which like the Kim family also have everything on the line, is real. Control over the weapons of mass destruction and other key assets (missile launch sites and storage facilities, communications facilities, the loyalty of major military formations such as the artillery, and armor massed near the borders) will be essential.
Moreover, North Korea's civilians are not, despite decades of effort by Pyongyang, totally ignorant about conditions outside the hermetic state. Already desperately impoverished and hungry, they may well decide at the first signs of regime collapse, or even before, that their moment is at hand. Aided by South Korean activists, they could begin moving north toward the Yalu River border with China or south to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which has divided North from South since the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement.South Korean authorities, together with the nearly 30,000 U.S. forces there, have long prepared for the contingency of massive refugee flows toward the DMZ. They also have plans for entering North Korea in force on extremely short notice, to prevent massive instability, to secure the nuclear weapons, and to control the DMZ.
The last thing we need is for the North's destructive weapons (or other elements of its nuclear program) to be used during internal conflict, or auctioned off to foreign states or terrorists by military factions desperate for hard currency to continue their struggle or flee the country. But while we believe that large stocks of chemical and biological weapons are located near the DMZ, we have very little knowledge of where the nuclear weapons actually are. If South Korean and U.S. forces have to enter the North, time will be short, the dangers high, and the odds long.
By itself, the risk of massive cross-border refugee movements should have prompted intense U.S.-Chinese consultations about the inevitable succession crisis. Unfortunately, little appears to have been done, despite continuing, visible evidence of Kim Jong Il's physical decline. Quite the contrary. Once again, in defiance of all logic and history, the Obama administration has been negotiating with North Korean diplomats, hoping to trade food aid for more empty promises to denuclearize.
One immediate concern is that China's Peoples Liberation Army will decide to intervene, hoping to avoid massive refugee flows across the Yalu River into China and to stabilize whatever government exists in Pyongyang. Clearly, Washington and Beijing should be working together behind the scenes to prevent any military mishaps that might be sparked by instability in Pyongyang.But there is a larger potential here. Washington should have been preparing for the opportunity Kim's death presents, namely the long-desired prospect that we could peacefully reunite the two Koreas, our stated objective since their "temporary" 1945 partition. Beijing should see reunification as being in its best interests, eliminating the nuclear risk that has troubled Northeast Asia.
But old Communist ties die hard, not to mention Beijing's fear of U.S. forces being positioned just south of the Yalu River. They saw that movie in 1950, and they don't like it any better today than they did then. Nonetheless, if there were ever a moment to contemplate reunification managed in the best interest of both China and America, not to mention the peoples of both Koreas, this is it.Risk and opportunity often come together, and Kim's death provides both in ample measure. This is a true crisis, a real 3 a.m. call. Let us pray that President Obama is up to it.