What’s happening in North Korea?

My plane landed last night to a flurry of text messages from friends and colleagues about Kim Jong Il’s sudden death—that says something about me, and I’m not sure I want to explore it too much—but from those text messages to the news coverage I’ve been frantically trying to catch up on, the big question seems to be “what next?”

Turns out that’s an uncomfortably good question.

We (think we) know a few things going in. First, Kim Jong Il, in failing health, seemed to designate his son Kim Jong Un as his chosen successor within the last couple of years. Second, that’s a substantially shorter time than KJI enjoyed as successor-designate, time in which relationships with key elements of the military and party elite could be solidified. However, since the shelling of coastal islands last year, there’s been speculation that KJU was involved as a way to demonstrate—-perhaps as much domestically as internationally—that he’s both capable of control and¬†willing to go to the mat with foreign rivals. Third, it looks as though North Korea chucked a short-range missile into the sea of Japan in the hours after the announcement, rattling nerves in the region and bringing home just how much we don’t¬†know about what goes on inside such a reclusive regime.

Here’s what we don’t know: what this means for North Korean foreign policy. To my mind, we’ve got a couple of important elements to consider

  1. Kim Jong Un will want to demonstrate his resolve, as well as the extent of his control over the military and party, to outsiders like South Korea, the United States, and Japan. As some analysts have suggested, we might view the confrontation last year and today’s missile test as just such a step, last year’s being a preemptive one.
  2. There will likely be a period in which he must fight to consolidate domestic control, which very well might divert resources, time, and effort away from bolstering his reputation with international rivals.

So while (1) would lead us to predict some reputation-minded international belligerence, whether sinking ships or shelling islands or lobbing missiles nearby countries, it’s possible that (2) would militate against it. Once (2) is taken care of, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a young, untested leader take steps to prove to his enemies—real or, perhaps increasingly inside such an insular regime, perceived—that he’s able and willing to use force in the pursuit of his goals.

Of course, we can probably also tell a story in which goals (1) and (2) both favor some kind of international belligerence, especially if the use of force can stave off a coup attempt or some other kind of resistance to KJU’s ascension (as argued in Chiozza and Goemans’ great new book, linked above). These two factors, I think, could be especially dangerous in the particular case of North Korea:

  1. Some of my dissertation empirics confirmed that dictatorships see their new leaders getting belligerent more often than democracies. In other words, the “turnover trap” in which new leaders act out and in which their rivals test them, is harder to escape from in dictatorships where the leader’s preferences play a larger role in foreign policy.
  2. Fighting to prevent irregular removals from office, as would certainly be the case in North Korea if the military or the party tries to topple KJU, is more likely in dictatorships than democracies, because the risk of irregular removal (and the severe punishment that goes with it), is lower in the latter than the former.

So we’ve got two domestic-political factos associated with the North Korean succession that might push the ledger in favor of international war, but my gut still tells me that plenty of other factors—not least of which is the fact that North Korea likely wouldn’t fare too well in an all-out war with, say, South Korea and the United States—mean that a full-blown international war isn’t too likely at this point.

Of course, betting against a war happening at any given point is always the safe bet—these things are exceedingly rare given the frequency of opportunities to fight them—but that doesn’t mean we ought not be on the lookout for new leaders’ reputational incentives and the potential boost to their prospects for political survival that might encourage them to use force in the highly uncertain environment of leadership changes in dictatorships.