On October 10 this year, mass celebrations occurred in Pyongyang on the 65th anniversary of the establishment of the Workers Party of North Korea. This came in the week after the first public appearance of Kim Jong-un, the third son of the frail North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. The younger Kim’s presence at an important conference of the Korean Workers Party confirmed experts’ opinions that he is now the chosen candidate to succeed the ‘Dear Leader’. The selection of Kim Jong-un as a four star general at this conference occurred following a two-year grooming process. In January 2009, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency suggested that Kim Jong-il had picked him as his heir five months after he had suffered a degenerative stroke in August 2008
While Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have been respectively referred to as the ‘Great Leader’ and ‘Dear Leader’, North Korean propagandists have already elevated Kim Jong-un to the position of the ‘Young General’.The Swiss-educated heir presumptive is believed to be 27 or 28 and bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather Kim Il-sung.
It is clear that during this succession period North Korea has undertaken a number of highly provocative acts. In late March 2010 the South Korean navy ship, the Cheonan, sank in mysterious circumstances close to the South Korean island of Baengnyeong in the Yellow Sea. In May 2010 a multinational investigation concluded that the ship had been torpedoed by a North Korean submarine. On the 23rd November 2010, the North also fired approximately two hundred artillery shells at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, located close to the disputed maritime border between the two countries. This came days after the international community discovered that North Korea had started enriching uranium. These belligerent actions have obviously been undertaken by Kim Jong-il to give his inexperienced son some credence, thereby furthering Kim Jong-un’s position within the North Korean military.
So how should the transatlantic community react to these current destabilising developments on the Korean peninsula? Firstly, the US and its allies need to begin to put real pressure on China regarding this issue. China has adopted a neutral approach to the North’s aggressive actions over the last number of months. While a long-time ally of the North, China has to force the DPRK to honour a 2005 agreement on the abandonment of its nuclear arsenal. If this occurs, the stalled Six-Party Talks could then resume in a less divisive environment.
Secondly, NATO has to continue to deepen its partnership with the Republic of Korea. Contacts between the Alliance and South Korea were established in 2005 when the then Foreign Minister and current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, travelled to NATO headquarters in Brussels and addressed the North Atlantic Council. Since that time, the Republic of Korea has contributed to stabilisation efforts in Afghanistan. During a visit to Seoul in July 2010, Dirk Brengelmann, NATO’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs and security policy, urged for a closer strategic partnership with South Korea on issues such as proliferation and piracy during an interview with the country’s Yonhap News Agency. A stronger relationship with the world’s largest military alliance is in the South’s interests, particularly in the context of the current instabilities on the Korean peninsula.
Niall Mulchinock is a Phd candidate in the Department of Govenment at University College Cork, Ireland.