Christopher Hill, the unfortunate man with the North Korea portfolio at the State Department, made a last-minute trip to Pyongyang this week at the invitation of the North Koreans, who, dissatisfied with a stalemate in disarmament talks, had just kicked international inspectors out of their Yongbyon nuclear reactor that was being disabled. The North Koreans then began re-enabling the plant instead. This is somewhat akin to contesting a speeding ticket by pulling out a hand grenade, but Hill carried a revised approach to the talks that officials hoped would break the deadlock.
Hill's trip followed a week of ad hoc talks among the countries involved in the six-party process to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Hill met with their foreign counterparts in New York, where world leaders had gathered for the United Nations General Assembly, and President Bush discussed the matter in a phone call with President Hu Jintao of China.
Whether the diplomatic flurry can accomplish much before the end of Bush's term seems doubtful. Kim Jong Il, 66, has outlasted the leaders of every country that has dealt with him, and now that he is apparently ill -- rumors say he suffered a stroke in August, although past reports that he was incapacitated, epileptic, or dead have proven premature -- his weapons program appears likely to outlast him as well. The tea leaves are unclear as to whether Kim, his family, military generals, or senior apparatchiks currently hold the strings in North Korea, but whoever it is seems to be tying a fat knot around the country's military capabilities -- a gift, perhaps, for the next round of negotiations. Yongbyon was reopened after weeks of stalled talks over how tough verification procedures should be to ensure that Pyongyang is telling the truth about denuclearization, and media reports last month indicated that North Korea had tested a component of a long-range ballistic missile with the potential to strike the western United States.
Officials engaged in the six-party talks have been careful not to characterize the move at Yongbyon as a step backward -- North Korea often uses bellicose moves to shore up its bargaining position -- but it can't possibly be considered a step forward. "They have been staking out some very tough negotiating positions," Hill said. "But we've been able to get through tough spots before; let's see if we can get through this one."
Those who fret about North Korea tend to worry about what actions the fearful, secretive state wants to take. Several Korea-watchers, however, are increasingly worried about the possibility of something that the Pyongyang regime doesn't want -- namely, to fall apart. Kim is not a young man, and he did not lead a life conducive to becoming an old one. He has, by most accounts, abandoned the cognac and cigarettes he once adored, but the Dear Leader's heart, liver, and lungs are not immortal. Some day, whether it is this year, next year, or several years from now, the rumors of his demise will be true.
The eventuality of Kim's death must have occurred to the North Koreans as well; yet if they have a plan for his succession, they have not shared it with the outside world. His father, Kim Il Sung, announced 14 years before his demise that Kim Jong Il would take his place; in contrast, none of the younger Kim's three sons has received the dynastic nod. Most analysts think that a collective military leadership is likely to smoothly succeed Kim, possibly with a son as its token leader, but they acknowledge that men with a taste for power don't always abandon their hopes willingly. Should rifts emerge, chaos could follow, and a chaotic North Korea with nuclear weapons is several degrees more frightening than a stable North Korea with nuclear weapons.
"It isn't clear to me that [the military would take control] without political infighting, because individual sons are allied to parts of the party and parts of the military, so you could get competing sons within that rubric," said Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "The worst-case scenario would be the military splitting and getting [into] a civil war in which one or more factions appealed for support, presumably from China, possibly from South Korea."
In strategic parlance, the possibility of North Korea collapsing because of civil war, a disease pandemic, famine, or some other cause is considered a "low-probability, high-risk" scenario, and the U.S. Defense Department expends considerable resources on planning for such contingencies.
With North Korea, however, the Pentagon's planning is hamstrung by diplomatic sensitivities. If North Korea attacked South Korea, the quite-public game plan calls for American-led forces to wipe North Korea off the map. But if the country were to implode of its own accord, the diplomats haven't settled the rules for what comes next. Doing so, they fear, could further imperil the six-party talks by frightening Pyongyang. "Nobody wants to be perceived as planning for North Korea's collapse," said Victor Cha, the director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council through 2007. "The headline would read, 'U.S., China, South Korea coming up with a collapse plan for North Korea.' "
But, Cha warns, if the U.S., China, and South Korea don't discuss their contingency plans for a North Korean collapse, then they risk misreading one another's intentions if militaries start moving on the peninsula -- and the last time that happened, 4 million people died in the ensuing Korean War.
"Say the South Koreans needed airlift capacity," Cha said. "They don't have much lift capacity, so the U.S. starts lifting them north of the DMZ. That's scary to the Chinese. Suppose the Chinese start sealing the border, but they start on the southern side of the Yalu River -- that would be of concern to the South Koreans."
Absent shared strategies for a collapse, each country has well-founded concerns about how the others might perceive its moves to handle refugees, secure weapons sites, and otherwise stabilize North Korea. Although South Korea fears a permanent Chinese expansion onto the peninsula, the Chinese might have solid reasons for crossing the Yalu: The most-logical terrain for sealing that border lies inside North Korea, and besides, Chinese forces could also find themselves chasing loose nuclear materials. U.S. forces might need to cross the DMZ to aid South Korean forces or to help in securing nuclear materials, but China fears an American expansion on the peninsula. South Korea, for its part, doesn't want either China or America to entangle itself in Korean affairs; both China and the U.S. worry that the South Korean military might not be able to handle the situation on its own.
With some advance discussion, everybody could minimize the potential surprises. "Planning coordination should be happening along the lines of, 'We will do this; what will you guys be doing? Let's make sure we don't get into a shooting war by accident,' " said John Park, director of the Korea working group at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "But for political and other reasons, it's never gotten to that detailed level."
Military analysts have been quietly indicating that a discreet conversation on contingency planning could be useful. "There has been a greater willingness in the past two years on the Chinese side to discuss the danger of North Korean instability," said Bonnie Glaser, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
On the U.S. side, Pentagon analysts would like to enter contingency discussions with China and South Korea, but they haven't gained traction at the diplomatic level. "I think there's been a reluctance to get into this discussion as long as it appears that the other process, the six-party talks, is working," said Michael Finnegan, who recently retired as the Korean director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and joined the National Bureau of Asian Research. The diplomats are concerned about undermining the nuclear talks and about the delicate politics of contingency planning in South Korea, which wants to avoid the perception of foreign powers cutting deals on the future of the peninsula.
South Korea's hesitancy is "reasonable and understandable," Finnegan said. "Not helpful, but reasonable and understandable."
To proceed with contingency talks, then, all three countries need a political agreement at the secretarial level. "Without that, nobody has the political cover to have the discussion," Finnegan said. "Once you get the political cover, you can have a very clinical, technical discussion about what it might mean to deal with a collapse in North Korea. Then you start to see where the conflicts need to be worked out and where the coordination needs to be done."
This article appears in the October 4, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine.