The death of North Korea’s enigmatic leader, Kim Jong Il, should be seen as an opportunity for the rest of the world to improve ties with the reclusive Asian country. The situation in North Korea is potentially volatile, and cultivating economic and diplomatic relations with the mysterious country will serve the interests of Western and Asian countries alike.
Before Kim Jong Il’s death, the enigmatic leader positioned his youngest son, Kim Jong Un to succeed him in power. The transfer of power from the late Kim Jong Il to his son will be an indicator of what road North Korea will take in this turbulent time. If the transfer of power does not go smoothly, many disastrous situations could arise. For that reason, Asian and Western countries alike should do their best to ensure that Kim Song Un enjoys a smooth transition to power.
Of primary concern to Western countries is the fact that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons. If North Korea falls into chaos after the death of Kim Jong Il, the potential for nuclear weapons or other fissile material to fall into the wrong hands skyrockets.
An unstable North Korea also presents the possibility of a humanitarian disaster. North Korea is already suffering from a lack of food and vital supplies. If the new leadership falters at this crucial time, and the state-run economy plunges further into disarray, the North Korean people could suffer from a severe famine.
Famine could trigger massive amounts of the hungry to seek refuge in neighboring China, South Korea, and Russia. This is a reality none of these countries would like to face.
In contrast to the Arab Spring, a democratic uprising is unlikely to succeed. It would be safe to bet on the country’s military leadership turning its guns on its own people before setting them down in the face of a popular uprising.
There is also the possibility of a coup of sorts in North Korea. Kim Jong Un is thought to be in his 20s, and if the inexperienced leader fails to consolidate his power quickly, he could be inviting challengers from the country’s only real power-base, the military, to test his resolve. If the resulting power struggle were to turn into civil war, the possibility of all these disasters occurring would be very real.
For these reasons, Asian and Western countries should extend diplomatic and economic relations to Kim Jong Un. Diplomacy allows for the possibility for both sides to make concessions, while economic ties could bring the North Korean people out of poverty. Both lessen the possibility of North Korea's plunging into chaos.
A good idea would be for the West to renew its offer of food aid and loosened economic sanctions to Kim Song Un in exchange for more openness about the North Korean nuclear program. Likewise, China could further strengthen its ties by providing some humanitarian aid of its own. This would help mitigate the possibility of nuclear proliferation and spur the economy, helping the North Korean people.
Ensuring the smooth succession of a rogue, dynastic country’s leader will be a bitter pill for many to swallow, but there are not many alternatives. The situation is so volatile that Kim Jong Un’s succession is the least of all evils, and that is the way the situation must be viewed. Perhaps, Asia and the West can convince North Korea’s new leader to begin normalizing relations with the rest of the world. At the very least, they should provide North Korea with the opportunity to drag itself out of its self-imposed exile. They owe it to themselves, and they owe it to the North Korean people.
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