North Korea After Kim

North Korea After Kim

Kim Jong-il’s death has prompted discussion about the future of the isolated country and its nuclear weapons program. Experts cited in this CFR Backgrounder believe a post-Kim regime in North Korea would remain a tough nuclear negotiator.

Last updated December 19, 2011 7:00 am (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

This publication is now archived.


The reported death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on December 18, 2011, has raised serious concerns over the future of the country and stability in the Korean peninsula. His son Kim Jong-un is now expected to take over the helm of the nuclear-armed Communist country, one of the most closed-off societies in the world. A September 2008 CFR Council Special Report says there is a possibility North Korea might intentionally transfer nuclear weapons or materials to a terrorist group, and thus merits Cold War-style methods of deterrence from the United States. While some experts believe the country might see some reform in the period after Kim, others see little hope for change, especially in the ongoing effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons.

Transfer of Power

Since its founding in 1945, North Korea has been under the leadership of the Kim dynasty. Known as the "Great Leader," Kim Il-Sung ruled from 1945 until his death in 1994. His son, Kim Jong-il, the "Dear Leader," took over as head of state in 1994 and ruled until he died in 2011. Both father and son ruled the country as an absolute dictatorship. Experts have often characterized North Korea as a failed state that is unable to provide for its people, and ruled by probably the most brutal regime in the world today.

Kim Jong-il announced his third son Kim Jong-un as his successor in September 2010, after a period of intense speculation following his stroke in August 2008.

More on:

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

North Korea

But even with a successor, North Korean observers have for some time feared a behind-the-scenes power struggle or nuclear instability after Kim Jong-il’s death. Kim Jong-un, reportedly around twenty-seven years old, is young and inexperienced. In October 2010, Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College wrote in Foreign Affairs: "Outsiders do not know how news of his ascension was greeted by the elites who prop up the Kim regime -- whether they share the views of eldest brother Kim Jong Nam, who told an interviewer, ’Personally, I am opposed to the hereditary transfer to a third generation of the family.’" Perhaps most important, she noted, was whether the military supports Kim Jong-un being handed the reins of power.

Kim Jong-il’s departure as absolute leader has also triggered discussions about how to respond to upheaval in the North. The United States and several regional countries, including China, have been thinking about their options if faced with instability in North Korea. A January 2009 Council Special Report urges the United States to prepare for sudden change in North Korea in concert with its allies in the region. The report calls for broader contacts with Pyongyang, and at the same time recommends that Washington promote the establishment of a standing institutional mechanism for regional security cooperation in northeast Asia.

However, some experts doubt Kim’s death will lead to chaos. "The North Korean political system has demonstrated surprising resilience and stability in the past," Evans J. R. Revere, president of the Korea Society, a New York-based nonprofit organization, said in a 2008 interview. He said the main elements of state power in North Korea--the Korean Workers’ Party, the military, and the security apparatus--seem to be functioning as usual and "preservation of the country’s political, social, and economic system remains the regime’s highest priority."

Robert Carlin, a former U.S. State Department official who took part in negotiations with North Korea from 1992-2000, said in 2008 that post-Kim scenarios prompt discussions of North Korea’s collapse by those on the outside because of their view of North Korea as an illegitimate state. But that’s not how North Koreans view their country, he says, noting "as far as I can tell they have a strong sense of nationalism and national identity."

Crisis Guide: The Korean PeninsulaSome experts think Kim Jong-il’s "military first" policy has made the country’s armed forces very strong and they might take greater control of the country in the future--and in such a scenario, Pyongyang would toe a harder line. However, experts say the entire North Korean leadership is focused on one thing--survival. North Korea will most likely continue to use a combination of tough and soft policies, aiming on the one hand to threaten and deter the outside world, and on the other to try to gain as much aid and assistance as possible.

Opportunity for Reform?

North Korea remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of $1,900. According to South Korea’s Central Bank, the North’s GDP declined by 2.3 percent in 2007, while GDP growth in the agricultural industry decreased by 9.4 percent. In December 2008, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Food Program warned that about 40 percent of the country’s population, an estimated 8.7 million people, mostly young children, pregnant and nursing women, and the elderly, will urgently need food assistance. The country spends a significant portion of its GDP on the military, whose ranks are filled by one-fifth of its population of 23 million people in active or reserve status. According to a 2004 Congressional Research Service report, 25 percent of GDP was spent on military expenditure (PDF) in 2002.

More on:

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

North Korea

"But clearly the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] that we see today is quite different from the one that existed even five years ago," Revere said in 2008, pointing to an increasing reliance on the market, and a growing understanding among the population of the role of markets and money. This has also led to a boom in black markets and increased smuggling along the China border, say experts. "With the partial exception of the military industry, the only functioning parts of the North Korean economy are the unofficial private markets," writes Andrei Lankov, an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, in Foreign Affairs in 2008.

North Korea has engaged in increased trade and economic cooperation with neighbors South Korea and China. A growing number of Chinese firms are investing in North Korea and gaining concessions like preferable trading terms and port operations. David C. Kang, a professor at the University of Southern California, in this December 2007 interview, said North Korea was beginning to take the initial steps "to open up reform and yet maintain control. "

But there is no consensus among experts regarding Pyongyang’s road to reform. While most agree that there is little chance of any political reform, economic reforms, however, remain a difficult issue. Revere said: "Economic transformation in the North is inevitable, primarily because the economy is so badly battered, but the content and direction of that transformation seem likely to follow a different path than China’s." Lankov argued otherwise. "Were North Korea to reform, the disparities with South Korea would only become starker to its populations," which could undermine state control and legitimacy, writes Lankov.

The Denuclearization Process

The Six-Party Talks, the multilateral agreement to end Pyongyang’s nuclear program, came to deadlock in September 2008 after North Korea expelled international inspectors from Yongbyon, its main plutonium-producing nuclear facility, and removed seals and security cameras intended to prevent Pyongyang from reactivating the plant. Pyongyang said it would return nuclear materials to the reprocessing plant within a week in order to reactivate the facility. The Yongbyon site was originally shut down in July 2007 as Pyongyang agreed to cease its nuclear activity in exchange for foreign aid and diplomatic incentives.

Experts say a post-Kim North Korea will have little impact on the denuclearization process. For North Korea, nuclear weapons are not only security cover and a bargaining tool with the international community, but also an instrument of political survival. Experts say Kim’s successors, similarly, would not risk looking weak by giving up their nuclear weapons; instead, Pyongyang will continue to use them to extract benefits in the form of money and oil from the West.

Implications for the Region

For Seoul, an unstable North is even more dangerous. The two countries are technically at war in the absence of a peace treaty at the end of the Korean War in 1953. Experts say Koreans in both parts of the peninsula have long hoped for reunification. A 2006 Gallup poll found 67 percent of South Koreans wanted reunification of the Koreas. However, the enormous costs have become a disincentive to near-term reunification, say experts. In the poll, 56 percent of South Koreans said they had more to lose than gain from reunification. Given the North’s opposition to reunification, experts say, it is only possible in the near term if North Korea collapses. China, some Western experts say, is interested in preserving North Korea as a buffer zone between itself and democratic South Korea, and does not accept reunification on U.S. terms. The Chinese government says it will go on supporting North and South Korea in improving relations and realizing independent peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul engaged in economic cooperation with Pyongyang starting in late 1990s as part of the "Sunshine Policy" to try to transform the North gradually so that unification would be less costly economically and politically for the South. But relations between the two Koreas have significantly deteriorated since 2008 under South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who made aid to Pyongyang conditional on nuclear disarmament. The sinking of a South Korean naval ship by North Korean forces in March 2010, followed by shelling of the South Korean island of Yeongpyeong in November 2010 further heightened tensions on the peninsula. In a November 2010 CPA Contingency Planning Memo, CFR’s Paul Stares argued that further provocations by North Korea carry the danger of unintended escalation on the peninsula and recommended the United States make a concerted diplomatic effort to reduce tensions on the peninsula and to contain North Korea’s pursuit of additional nuclear weapons and long-range missile capabilities.

Relations with the United States

The U.S. role in the Korean War, and its longtime presence in South Korea, translated to an antagonistic relationship between Washington and Pyongyang. Bound by a 1954 Mutual Security Agreement to defend South Korea in the event of outside aggression, the United States has some 28,000 troops and marines stationed in the country. However, North Korea and the United States have made some attempts in recent years toward normalizing relations. In October 2000, the two countries signed a joint communiqué for better bilateral relations. And the denuclearization plan of 2007 also sought improved relations through a multilateral engagement on ending North Korea’s nuclear program.

In February 2008, the New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang. Revere, who traveled with the orchestra, says the concert was a signal by North Korea’s leadership of "its desire for better relations with the United States." But Pyongyang’s continued possession of nuclear weapons will make such a relationship "impossible to achieve," he says, "just as it will prolong and possibly deepen" its isolation in the international community.

Contingency Plans

The presence of nuclear weapons makes the international community fearful of any future instability in North Korea, prompting calls for better contingency plans.

The Council Special Report on preparing for sudden change in North Korea says the United States should work with allies in the region to plan crisis response efforts. Currently, the U.S. and South Korean Combined Forces Command have a contingency plan, CONPLAN 5029 (, to prepare for North Korea’s collapse. The plan outlines how South Korean and U.S. forces would respond to a civil war in the North, a mass exodus of refugees, natural disasters, kidnapping of South Korean citizens, or loss of control over weapons of mass destruction. However, a U.S. effort in 2005 to devise a more detailed operational plan (OPLAN) failed due to Seoul’s fears of antagonizing Pyongyang and undermining South Korea’s sovereign interests. According to news reports, the United States pushed for the formulation of an operational plan once again in October 2008.

A 2010 CFR Task Force Report says the United States must provide leadership with its regional partners to "coordinate actions designed to contain the spillover effects of possible North Korean instability while insisting that North Korea give up its destabilizing course of action." It calls for the establishment of a dialogue with China about the future of the Korean peninsula, bilateral talks with North Korea regarding missile development, and close consultations with allies South Korea and Japan.


Top Stories on CFR

Pharmaceuticals and Vaccines

The swift development of effective vaccines against COVID-19 was an unprecedented scientific achievement. But production challenges, vaccine nationalism, and new variants have all presented hurdles.

United States

Spurred on by worsening economic and political crises across Latin America, migration to the United States reached record levels in 2022. Here’s a look at the year’s major immigration stories.


The Balkans have long been a source of tension between Russia and the West, with Moscow cultivating allies there as the EU and NATO expand into the region. The war in Ukraine might be shifting the calculus.