As North Korea prepares for Kim Jong-Il’s state funeral, speculation is growing over how effectively the ruling coterie of family and senior military officials can continue sharing power with successor-son Kim Jong-un. All eyes will be on Wednesday’s ceremony for clues about the cohesion of this leadership group, which includes the state’s senior most general, Ri Yong-ho, and the late Kim Jon-Il’s brother-in-law, Jan Song-thaek.
Central to North Korea’s future will be the degree to which China can continue to undermine Korean reunification. With nearly $7 trillion dollars in mineral wealth on the line, Bejing is hardly expected to support a new leader that would aim to increase economic and political ties with other nations.
Significant uncertainties, however, remain as there are signs North Korea could seek warmer relations with the South and possibly allow increased foreign investment. This week, former South Korean first lady Lee Hee-ho and Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun were received as South Korean representatives by North Korean leader Kin Jong-un.
While it’s anybody’s guess what the current government has planned, strategic planning consultancy Wikistrat has forecast three potential scenarios for North Korea’s future:
Best case: Slow liberalization-by-committee. In this scenario, either Kim Jong-un or his uncle Jang Song-Thaek open North Korea to special economic zones, north and south, that let in, respectively, Chinese and South Korean direct investment. Over the years, the two neighbors achieve trustee-like control over North Korea that leverages China and South Korea’s financial heft. Meanwhile, North Korea opens up its doors and relaxes its economic and political constraints upon the population.
Middle path: More of the same. In this scenario, the North Korean military steps back just enough to let Kim Jong-un’s generation wipe out the Old Guard over time, using the pretext of “foreign aggression” to stage the usual purges. As Beijing signs off, Kim Jong-un can prove he’s got the old man’s guts, successfully grab the reins of power and salute the generals with a reasserted “military first” policy. This way, China retains North Korea as a thorny prod to the U.S., which is committed to strategically “pivoting” to East Asia.
Worst case: A Chinese-backed military dictatorship. If things get really bad, Beijing might simply extract all the mineral wealth it can before turning over the carcass of North Korea to South Korea and the Americans for the super-costly rehabilitation.
For more, read Wikistrat’s special report for Fareed Zakaria’s GPS blog, at CNN.com