Analysis: Dangerous days of regime’s succession

Along with Hollywood movies, platform shoes and unimaginable cruelty, Kim Jong-Il’s great obsession was nuclear weapons.

By most estimates, the authoritarian leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea amassed between six and ten nuclear devices during his reign. Now the concern is how his estate will be divvied up.

The intelligence blackout in North Korea is so complete that outside analysts have very little information about North Korea’s command and control structure for its nuclear weapons.

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On paper, Kim Jong-Il had absolute control of his nuclear arsenal. He was the supreme head of North Korea’s governing and military institutions. But he often brandished lofty credentials that meant nothing in practice.

It is possible that many officials were involved in the control of the country’s arsenal; we just don’t know.

This lack of certainty is of concern not only in the case of war with South Korea, but also because Kim Jong-Il’s regime showed a willingness to sell sensitive nuclear technology. Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor closely resembled a North Korean facility used to produce plutonium for bombs. North Korea and Iran’s sharing of technology for missiles that could be used to deliver nuclear warheads is so extensive that western intelligence agencies now view it as operationally a joint missile programme. The nightmare scenario is that someone takes advantage of instability during regime succession to add fissile material – the key ingredient for nuclear bombs – to the shopping list of export items and terrorists to the list of potential buyers.

For that reason, the United States and its allies have surely laid out contingency plans for entering North Korea if they receive firm intelligence that security of the country’s nuclear weapons has been compromised. It has been estimated that an overall “stabilisation” force in North Korea would require 300,000 troops. And US or allied troops in DPRK would make China very twitchy. China’s strategy of the past few decades has been designed to prevent such a scenario.

Stable succession of power to Kim Jong-Un would help dispel immediate concern about the security of the country’s nuclear weapons, but other long-term nuclear challenges remain.

Denuclearisation of North Korea will remain the goal of South Korean and US policy, but it may be difficult to achieve. All indications are that Kim Jong-Un sees himself as the heir to an established nuclear weapons state, and he’s unlikely to give up that status.

In the longer term, the West must staunch the flow of nuclear technology from North Korea. The fewer despots who possess these weapons, the better.