Minxin Pei thinks that the Pyongyang regime is unlikely to survive a transition from Kim Jong Il to his son. While the prospects for a collapse of the North Korean state are debatable, it’s unquestionably true that the regional states ought to be thinking and talking (at least privately) about how to respond:
What is most worrying about a possible North Korean collapse is that the key players in the region are not talking to each other, even informally, about such an eventuality. It’s almost certain that these powers—China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and, possibly, Russia—have all drawn up their own contingency plans for Pyongyang’s quick collapse. However, they’ve done nothing to explore a collective response to what is without doubt a geopolitical game-changer.
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.
There seems to be an implicit assumption in this discussion that the North Korean state will simply cease to exist following a leadership crisis. Collapse is certainly a possible outcome, but it’s also possible that the North Korean state could survive, at least for a while, under some sort of non-Kim military dictatorship. The attitudes of Seoul and Beijing would be particularly important in this respect; the health of a post-Kim North Korea would be greatly affected by China’s willingness to underwrite the regime, and by South Korea’s approach to manifesting claims on Korean national identity. In the German case, the Russians had no interest in continuing to prop up the Berlin regime, and West Germany was happy to advance the claim that it was the only legitimate German national regime. It’s also worth noting that nationalist sentiments could override such a pedestrian concern as the utter economic disaster that incorporating North Korea would wreak upon South Korea.