Don't Ignore North Korea

Kim Jong Il has been dead eight weeks, and commentators are still treating his successor, Kim Jong Un, as if he’s the latest celebrity teen star. But there’s more at stake than speculation over the young Kim’s staying power. Despite the understandable preoccupation with Iran and the specter of a European economic collapse, we are about to repeat past mistakes by ignoring a rogue state that already possesses nuclear weapons. This failure to be more proactive is likely to end in a different kind of bad news — another nuclear test.

Despite our best efforts, we remain woefully in the dark about the internal leadership dynamics of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This is particularly true for Kim Jong Un. Many assessments of the young Kim rely on anecdotes and hearsay. Given this lack of knowledge, it would be folly to try to steer North Korea’s leadership transition, especially as China is firmly in Kim Jong Un’s court. If the United States, Republic of Korea (ROK) or Japan were to intervene, the unintended consequences could be profound, with a misstep erupting into an ugly scenario pitting a Beijing-backed faction against one backed by the United States, South Korea and Japan.

Just as a policy of fostering regime change is not tenable, a seemingly reasonable wait-and-see/status quo approach is also inadequate. It could sow the seeds for yet another nuclear test in 2013, which could lead to engineering advances that allow the totalitarian North to produce smaller (and more) nuclear warheads. And what better way for a determined North Korea to “market” its nuclear know-how for export?

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