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  • The Last Days of Kim Jong-il: The North Korean Threat in a Changing Era by Bruce E. Bechtol Jr.
  • Balazs Szalontai (bio)
The Last Days of Kim Jong-il: The North Korean Threat in a Changing Era, by Bruce E. Bechtol Jr. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2013. 223pages, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95 cloth.

A former senior analyst with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Bruce E. Bechtol seeks to assess the threats the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) posed to international security in 2009–12, when the unexpected illness and death of Kim Jong-il compelled the North Korean ruling circle to rush through the succession process of Kim Jong-un. As the author puts it, “This book is unique because it specifically addresses the end of the Kim Jong-il era from a national security perspective” (p. 5). Bechtol examines the effects of Kim Jong-un’s succession on the domestic and external conduct of the North Korean military elite, with a focus on the actual threats emanating from Pyongyang’s offensive capabilities. The author places a strong emphasis on systemic continuity, arguing that the DPRK’s new leader is unlikely to abandon the confrontational policies Kim Jong-il pursued at the end of his reign. He further concludes that Kim Jong-un’s less-than-smooth installation may have actually aggravated inter-Korean tensions.

Following an introduction, chapter 2 analyzes the DPRK’s military capabilities, the leadership’s post-1990 strategy, and the role of the armed forces in the dynastic succession process. Bechtol provides a particularly impressive amount of data about Pyongyang’s satellite launches in 2012 [End Page 106] and the post-2010 personnel shifts within the North Korean military elite. He draws attention to the adaptability of North Korean strategic planning, such as Pyongyang’s efforts to offset the conventional military superiority of its U.S. and South Korean opponents by means of an asymmetric strategy. His description of the latest stage of the missile race on the Korean Peninsula—North Korea’s development of the Musudan missile that is able to hit targets as far away as 4,000 kilometers, and the U.S.–ROK agreement on the extension of South Korea’s missile range to 800 kilometers—succinctly highlights the magnitude of the security risks with which decision makers in Northeast Asia and the United States have to cope. Indeed, these risks may be further aggravated by the unpredictable shifts and power struggles in North Korean domestic politics. Bechtol persuasively argues that “the potential for instability—including in the military—now that Kim Jong-il is dead is very real” (p. 48). The validity of his warning is fully confirmed by the fact that Chang Song-taek, Kim Jong-un’s once-powerful uncle, was purged and executed not long after the publication of this book.

Selectively focused as it is on North Korea’s offensive capabilities, the author’s analytical conception is somewhat flawed in certain respects. First, his claim about the new threat posed by Pyongyang’s post-1995 transition to asymmetric forces needs some re-examination. Of the three main components Bechtol describes, two (long-range artillery deployed in hardened sites and Special Operations Forces, SOF) were prominent in North Korean strategy as early as the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, only the deployment of long-range missiles seems to constitute a qualitative change. Second, the author devotes far more attention to North Korea’s capabilities than to its intentions. For example, the technical aspects of the satellite launches are minutely described, while the motivations behind them remain largely uninvestigated. Indeed, Bechtol’s categorical statement about the nature of the launches (“the satellite means nothing; it is all about the success or failure of a three-stage ballistic missile program,” p. 29) obscures Pyongyang’s persistent efforts to achieve a prestige victory over Seoul by launching a satellite before South Korea could do so. Third, offensive military capabilities constitute just one element of a nation’s grand strategy; the likelihood of a particular type of attack is determined not only by the availability of the related equipment but also by broader calculations about...


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pp. 106-110
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