The only consistent theme from everyone since the death of Kim Jong Il has been that nobody knows what's going to happen next.
On a conference call Monday, analysts from the conservative American Enterprise Institute cautiously hedged almost everything they said against a backdrop of, well, nobody really understands the North.
"North Korean politics remains fundamentally opaque," said AEI scholar Nicholas Eberstadt. "Think of Stalin, of the old Kremlinology, or Mao and China-watching -- except about 100 times worse."
From what he's been able to see and learn, however, Eberstadt said it looks as though the senior Kim made a mistake in preparing a plan of succession for the son who evidently was his heir apparent: Kim Jong Un. North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, spent decades preparing Kim Jong Il to eventually take his place, Eberstadt said, phasing him into the center of party and army life throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Kim Jong Il, on the other hand, was surprisingly "feckless," as Eberstadt put it, about waiting until the last minute to decide what would come after him.
In fairness to Kim Jong Il -- now there's a phrase one thought one would never write -- there's no way he could have known how little time he had left. He may have planned another decades-long period of inculcation for Kim the younger, possibly timed to next year's 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader. (In death, he technically remains the leader of the country.)
Eberstadt said Kim the elder's death this past weekend only increases the danger that Pyongyang celebrates the Great Leader's centenary with "nuclear fireworks" -- one or more nuclear detonations to commemorate the Dear Leader's success in joining the nuclear club his father always dreamed of entering. Given that Kim the younger is only in his late 20s and only recently decided to go into the family business, observers worry he could test nuclear warheads, provoke the South or do something else reckless to consolidate his hold on power.
But Eberstadt and his colleague, Dan Blumenthal, said that no matter what the North does, it's out of the world's hands anyway. The U.S., however, can use the Kim interregnum as an opportunity to change its policies toward Pyongyang and try to exploit the younger Kim's potentially shaky grip on power, they argued.
First, Eberstadt and Blumenthal said, the U.S. must begin with the end in mind: A unified Korean peninsula with a free market economy and continued alliance with the U.S. To get there, Washington can attack many of the North's systemic weaknesses: Its reliance on global crime and smuggling to enrich its ruling elite; its reliance on outside food aid and other subsidies to prop up its broken economy; and its default insurance policy of seeking protection from China.
Just cracking down on North Korean counterfeiting, smuggling and other ongoing crimes will start to squeeze the regime that rules what is officially called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Eberstadt argued.
"The DPRK is an international criminal enterprise, and as such it’s much more vulnerable to simple honest police work than other governments in the world," he said. "Simply letting police work go forward will ineluctably put pressure on the government."
As Blumenthal pointed out this redoubled "police work" might drive a wedge between the young Kim and the ruling elite, to keep him off balance and motivate as many underlings as possible to resist or even abandon the government. The risk, of course, is destabilizing the government the wrong way and either empowering an even less stable hardliner or inadvertently provoking the North into a full-scale military response.
Whatever happens, the analysts argued that the U.S. must at least keep a firm hand, if not double down on new techniques to pressure the young Kim as he takes power. Now is not the time to try the soft soap, Blumenthal argued.
"I think it’ll be tempting to say, 'there’s an opportunity now that Kim Jong Il is gone,' there's an opportunity for us and our allies to begin to explore whether there’s a possibility for a diplomatic breakthrough. I think that would be a mistake."
Photo: American naval officers visited the wreckage of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, which was sunk by a North Korean torpedo.