North Korea: What's next is off the
plan By Jeffrey Robertson
All states prepare for national
emergencies. North Korea is no different.
National emergency response planning is
universal. State authorities know that one day,
sooner or later, a high-impact event will occur.
They know that it could potentially have a major
impact upon the population, affecting their way of
life, their beliefs and their opinion regarding
the legitimacy of state authority. Accordingly,
state authorities plan and prepare to rapidly
respond to and recover from such events.
On December 17, 2011, North Korea
experienced such an event. When Kim Jong-Il died
it was not unexpected. Genetics and political
precedent suggested that at 69 he could have continued
to lead North Korea for
a substantial period. Kim Il-Sung ruled until the
age of 82. Yet since early 2007, reports made it
increasingly clear that ill health would not allow
During the October 2007 South-North
Korean Summit, the South Korean media observed
that Kim Jong-Il was "senile and weak", "old and
haggard" and "tilted toward the right".
Information on Kim Jong-Il's health was both scant
and unreliable, but it was a recurring feature of
media reports on North Korea. Inevitably it would
also have been a major feature in North Korean
It can be expected that
North Korean planners spent a substantial amount
of time to prepare the response to Kim Jong-Il's
death. They were planning for a national
A standard national emergency
response plan consists of four stages: prevention
and mitigation; pre-event preparedness; immediate
response; and recovery and consolidation. These
four interdependent and sometimes concurrent
stages of emergency management are universal.
While risk-based management processes are adapted
to particular national circumstances and specific
emergencies, the four stages still underpin the
A comparison of how
economically advanced states plan for national
emergencies and North Korea's planning for the
death of Kim Jong-Il provides useful insight.
Hurricane Katrina, which struck the United States
in August 2005, serves as an unlikely, but useful
comparison. It indicates that, contrary to
mainstream expectations, we are only now entering
a period of heightened uncertainty.
New Orleans it was expected that sooner or later a
high-impact event would occur. Papers and reports
had long debated the effectiveness of levees
against a high-impact event. Prevention and
mitigation in the face of budget constraints and
unforeseeable consequence can only do so much.
Authorities strengthened and storm-proofed
infrastructure; educated the public in
civil-defense drills; and continued to monitor
tidal and weather activity.
North Korea it must have been accepted that sooner
or later, Kim Jong-Il would die. Prevention and
mitigation in an authoritarian regime can only do
so much. There is no way to prevent death just as
there is no way to prevent hurricanes. The
authorities followed basic steps - strengthening
the regime's support base, educating the public to
accept the next leader, and monitoring,
restricting and weakening potential rivals.
Preparedness is a more daunting task. In
New Orleans, as Hurricane Katrina approached this
included public communication (warnings),
infrastructure preparation (sandbagging and flood
gates) and in certain circumstances, enforcement
of emergency laws (evacuation).
Korea, preparedness would conceivably have been
more difficult. Few individuals are willing to
prepare for authoritarian transition until they
are certain that it will actually occur. In the
early hours of March 1, 1953, when Stalin had a
heart attack, nobody was brave enough even to
enter his room until 10pm. He died four days
later, but those around him continued to swing
between praise and denouncement, as he opened and
closed his eyes.
unwillingness, we know that preparedness had
haltingly increased toward the end of Kim
Jong-Il's life. Public communication (propaganda
highlighting continuity) and infrastructure
preparation (increased restrictions on movement)
were thought to be in place.
response is no less daunting. As Hurricane Katrina
inundated New Orleans, the authorities implemented
plans to undertake rapid assessments and deploy
necessary search and rescue services. Plans called
for coordination of federal and international
resources and ongoing engagement with the public
to assure an adequate response was underway. These
plans floundered as the scale and the
impossibility of implementing them became
It soon became clear
that authorities had failed the public.
Communities were left stranded and civil
misbehavior, before then unimagined in the United
States, was detailed in media reports. Yet, even
as all this occurred, in the interests of
restoring stability, communities were largely
willing to place their faith in the existing
structures. There was no uncertainty and
In North Korea, the immediate
response plan was implemented successfully.
Well-choreographed scenes of national mourning
segued into equally well-choreographed scenes of
thankfulness, admiration and respect for the
successor. There was no uncertainty and no
However, it is the final stage
of recovery and consolidation that is the most
significant. The United States reaction to
Hurricane Katrina highlights this point. With the
national emergency receding in the minds of all
but those still directly affected, wriggle space
opened up for blame and recriminations.
Reassessments of the plan were inevitable and
ongoing weaknesses become evident. Reviews
implemented sweeping changes to how local, state
and federal authorities interact. Responsibilities
for preparation and immediate response were
realigned. Centers of power changed within federal
bureaucracies, such as the US Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA). Certain politicians
benefited from their criticism of authorities and
others were blamed for their ineptitude.
In the final stages of the national
emergency response plan, it can be expected that a
period of relative instability occurs as the
emergency ends and recovery and consolidation
plans are reassessed.
consolidation in North Korea are now underway. Is
wriggle space opening up for blame and
recriminations? Are new centers of bureaucratic
power being established? Have other centers of
power been weakened or strengthened?
at this point, when this comparison highlights an
important finding. With the death of Kim Jong-Il,
a plethora of pundits came out to announce that
there was a risk of instability. It was thought
that change could immediately bring out fractures
in the North Korea's regime. In fact, we are only
now entering a period of potential instability.
The outside world knows nothing of North
Korea. This has been aptly demonstrated by the
torrent of guesswork regarding the "mysterious
woman" appearing beside Kim Jong-eun who was later
revealed as his wife; putative expert insights
into changes in the military leadership; and the
continual reminder that the closest we can get to
the current supposed leader's age is
But the outside world does
know about national emergency response planning.
We know that North Korea took steps to prevent and
mitigate the national emergency it knew was
coming. We know that North Korea took steps to
prepare for the national emergency. We know that
the implementation of the immediate response plan
was well executed and proceeded smoothly.
There are already pundits wagging tails
over the potential for meaningful economic reform.
It is with great trepidation that one should
assume anything with North Korea. But we do know
that North Korea should be entering the final
stages of its national emergency response plan.
Whatever comes next is unlikely to have the same
depth of planning. Here lies the risk.
Jeffrey Robertson is a visiting
professor at the KDI School of Public Policy and
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