Big Week

So it's been a busy semester with all of the dissertating, job applicating, researchitating, and paper writing. As I've mentioned before, blogging has (unfortunately) taken a bit of a back seat to all of this. I can't say that it hasn't been worth it, though, as this has been a rewarding semester insofar as the work that I've been focusing on is concerned. However, some big events have occurred over the past week and I feel compelled to at least say a little something about them. More after the jump…

First, there's this. Kim Jong Il has died, and this certainly seems to have come out of the blue. The Japanese and South Korean militaries are now on alert, and apparently South Korean media were circulating reports (unconfirmed) that the North test fired a missile just before the announcement was made. The missile test is not beleived by South Korean officials (unnamed) to be directly related to the announcement of dear leader's death. 

So what now? Basically, there seems to be an incredible degree of uncertainty regarding what happens next. Kim Jon Un has been declared to be the "great successor" to his father, but I'd imagine that there has to be a great deal of uncertainty regarding his ability to successfully consolidate power. I'd also imagine that his relative youth cannot be terribly helpful in this process. Kim Jong Il was quite a bit older when he first took power in 1994—in his early 50s. His son, however, is somewhere in his late 20s, and was bestowed with the rank of general not that long ago. Kim the elder has much more time to become familiar with the inner-workings of the North Korean political system, who the potential rivals were, etc. Kim the younger may have a more difficult time consolidating power given that he is so young by comparison. A colleague of mine who is currently a South Korean military officer made note in a conversation this morning that Kim Jong Un's uncle, who is highly placed within the regime, may help to support and guide him, possibly serving as a shield against potential rivals. But given the primacy of the military in North Korea, would even this kind of protection be enough to help Kim the younger gain the suppot and confidence of military leaders that he will ultimately need to rule? I suppose a lot of these issues depend on just how long ago Kim Jong Un began his grooming process and what, if any, allies he has gained along the way. Also, will he attempt to maintain a steady course, or demonstrate his independence by purusing some crazy new policies? We shall see.

Also, does this event do anything for the salience of foreign policy in the upcoming elections? It was not even a year ago that bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, and the subsequently rocky US-Pakistan relationship has remained a topic of discussion in the recent Republican debates. Still, domestic economic concerns have generally trumped national security and foreign policy. I think part of this probably has to do with the fact that a lot of the issues concerning Pakistan have been known, to some degree or another, by US officials for a few years now. That is to say, Pakistan's duplicity in their relations with the US is not really news. The specifics regarding the harboring of bin Laden by some elements within Pakistan, specifically, may have been unknown, but overall I think we've had a pretty good idea that Pakistan has not been 100% in the US's corner since the invasion of Afghanistan began. That combined with the ending of the war in Iraq and the general sense that the US is winding down the war in Afghanistan perhaps explain why these issues have not been more dominant in the broader scheme of things.

However, the death of Kim Jong Il could mark the beginning of a series of events that will make foreign policy a more salient issue in the upcoming election. With the Obama administration's recent "pivot" away from the middle-east and toward Asia, the changing of leadership is certainly going to be a concern. Will the North become increasingly belligerent in an effort to ward off potential challenges from the outside, while also attempting to insulate the new leader from potential challenges from within? Will they indeed hunker down for a while?

And does this provide an opportunity for the US to get closer with China? The North Korean regime certainly seems to be a thorn in the side of the Chinese, offering many headaches with seemingly few benefits. The Chinese may find an opportunity to distance themselves further from the North Koreans, using the changing of the guard and any subtle policy shifts as a pretense for reevaluating the close relationship that they have maintained thus far. This could provide the US and China with some common ground. Again, this may also depend on what sorts of policies Kim Jong Un pursues. 

However, Kim Jong Il's death and the rise of his son to power does not solve the fundamental security risks that the regime as a whole poses to the Chinese. Refugee flows across the border and a nuclear arsenal are still of great concern to the Chinese leadership. Until it is clearer how things are going to unfold I suspect the Chinese are going to be reluctant to do anything that could be seen as confrontational. This might not be the greatest time for the Chinese to alter course in any significant ways either. Given these concerns, perhaps this instead represents an opportunity for China to exercise greater control over the direction of North Korean policies. If the younger Kim is indeed in need of support, the Chinese could ramp up supplies of food, arms, money, etc., to make the young leader more dependent upon China for his position. Again, I'm not a Korea expert, but I'd imagine the North Korean military leadership would have to think twice before opposing Kim Jong Un if such opposition meant there was a risk of losing out on an influx of weaponry, cash, and supplies they could use to better their own positions. Or perhaps the military would be (potentially) a more stable partner to deal with? Maybe this represents a chance for the military to buddy up with the Chinese and oust dear leader junior?

So many possibilities.

Second, and I don't mean to downplay this, the US has pulled its forces out of Iraq. I know this is supposed to be a big deal, but I guess I'm just a big skeptical. We have this habit of leaving a lot of troops behind, even when we're "done" with wars. This BBC article discusses the withdrawal a bit, and points out that we still have a couple of hundred soldiers stationed in Iraq for training purposes, and protecting diplomats. This article from MSNBC provides a bit more detail. 16,000 people involved with the "diplomatic effort," of which 2,000 are diplomats and federal workers, and 14,000 are "contractors." Of those 14,000 contractors "roughly half involved with security." And on top of that, 4,000 will be stationed in Kuwait for the time being. So yes, the draw-down certainly represents a departure from the 170,000 or so that we had in Iraq during the height of the war, but let's not pretend like we're done with Iraq. I don't think it's much of an exaggeration to say that once we've had troops deployed somewhere, we never really leave. 

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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