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The Challenge of Preparing for Instability in North Korea

Author: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
September 11, 2009


In North Korea's totalitarian system, political stability depends on the health of the leader more than on any other factor. For this reason, Kim Jong Il's rumored health problems have drawn careful scrutiny since he failed to appear almost exactly one year ago at public events marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The possible policy implications of three scenarios related to North Korea's succession process--a managed succession, a contested succession, and a failed succession--were analyzed in a Council on Foreign Relations Special Report released in January entitled Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea by Paul Stares and Joel Wit.

See-Won Byun's North Korea Contingency Planning and U.S.-ROK Cooperation, the latest report of The Asia Foundation's Center for U.S.-Korea Policy, explores the policy coordination challenges the United States and South Korea are likely to face in the context of potential instability in North Korea. Contingency planning efforts were marginalized or neglected as a focal point for coordination under progressive South Korean administrations that prized engagement with North Korea over planning for possible North Korean instability.

The combination of South Korea's unconditional economic assistance to North Korea and a continuous rise in China-North Korea trade volume facilitated North Korean economic recovery and stability, especially between 2002-2007. But South Korean planning in response to potential North Korean instability has resumed under the Lee Myung-bak administration, which has also constrained the flow of economic benefits to North Korea in the absence of reciprocity in inter-Korean relations.

The task of responding to potential instability in North Korea will likely require international coordination to address diplomatic, political, security, economic, humanitarian, and legal issues, and the nature and type of coordination that is needed will evolve as events unfold. For this reason, Byun's paper considers "preventive planning," "internal stabilization," and "securing development" as different phases in the development of the situation that will require differing types of responses by North Korea's neighbors.

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