Since the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, the US and South Korean governments have gamed scenarios for the collapse of the North, with the triggering event usually posited as the death of Kim Jong-il.
While Kim did not spend decades grooming his heir the way he was prepared for leadership, he did leave in place a governing structure to protect his family. The generals and party leadership have every incentive to support Kim Jong-un as the "Great Successor" and his uncle, Jang Song-taek, as the power behind the throne: Their own survival depends on a successful transition. In the coming months, the most likely scenario is not instability but national mourning and a retreat from recent diplomatic interaction with the United States and South Korea.
By the middle of next year, however, fissures may be apparent within the regime. Commentators frequently explain North Korean nuclear and missile tests as demonstrations of pique or efforts to gain concessions. That is true in the tactical sense of when exactly Pyongyang chooses overt demonstrations of its weapons development. It is not true, however, in a strategic sense: The North Koreans have a long-term program for developing nuclear weapons and using that power to make demands of the United States as an equal nuclear weapons state. And the North Korean propaganda machine long ago marked 2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth, as the year the North achieves that status.
The real prospect of nuclear testing by the North next year is part of the reason Seoul and Washington have attempted to open talks again -- even if there is little prospect of negotiating an end to the North's nuclear ambitions. If the effort to avoid provocation fails and the North tests a device, the United States and the other major powers in Asia are likely to ratchet up sanctions and pressure. The Obama administration has reasons to be concerned if Kim Jong-un feels compelled to make a show of military bravado.
The North Korean sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan last year may have been staged to give the younger Kim command experience and military credentials before his promotion to four-star general and vice chair of the powerful North Korean National Defense Commission. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were experienced at driving crises like the Cheonan to the edge of war for maximum leverage. None of North Korea's neighbors are confident, however, that the younger Kim knows how to play the same dangerous game without crossing the line.
And whereas Kim Jong-il had the command authority to determine when and how to play diplomacy vs. provocations with respect to the nuclear program, the same may not be true of Kim Jong-un and his uncle. They will be under enormous internal pressure to stay on schedule for the nuclear and missile development programs and to respond aggressively to international pressures or sanctions. For all the propaganda behind the younger Kim's credentials as a "Great General," the real generals will be tempted to shape and interpret the intent of the inexperienced Kim the same way Japan's generals divined Emperor Hirohito's words in the years before Pearl Harbor. Jang Song-taek will hold the real authority but not the aura of the two elder Kims.
If international and domestic turbulence starts pulling apart the cohesion of the leadership structure in Pyongyang, it could bring about the liberation of 23 million oppressed North Koreans and unification with a prosperous and democratic South. Sudden collapse would also bring great peril. Consider how intensely the West worries about the surface-to-air missiles that went missing when Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in Libya. In North Korea, we would have to worry about nuclear weapons' technology, fissile material, massive chemical and biological arsenals and more than a million men under arms -- all in a regime with close ties to criminal syndicates around the world.
The Obama administration therefore has reasons for focusing on stability in its approach to Pyongyang, but that should not get in the way of necessary planning and coordination with our allies and other powers in the region on how we would respond to the regime's demise. At this point, the downside risks associated with mismanagement of the collapse of the North and unification of the peninsula outweigh any risk that intensified preparations might pose to our diplomatic outreach to the North.
*The writer served as special assistant to the president and senior director for Asia on the National Security Council staff in the George W. Bush administration. He is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University.