China and South Korea have agreed to press for the quick resumption of the six-party negotiations on North Korean denuclearization, United Press International reported on Friday (see GSN, Dec. 22).
The South's lead nuclear negotiator, Lim Sung-nam, spoke in Seoul following a two-day trip to Beijing that featured talks with top officials including Chinese nuclear envoy Wu Dawei.
The visit occurred in the aftermath of the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, who reportedly suffered a fatal heart attack on Saturday. The leader is being succeeded by his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, who for now is said to be sharing authority with an uncle and the powerful North Korean military.
"During the talks (in Beijing) we agreed to make joint efforts to swiftly reinvigorate the process of efforts to resume the six-party talks," Lim said.
It has been more than three years since the last round of nuclear talks that involve China, Japan, Russia, the United States and both Koreas. The diplomatic program made limited progress on shuttering the North's nuclear program before going quiet after December 2008. Recently stepped-up efforts to agree to conditions for resuming the negotiations -- including a reported tentative deal for Pyongyang to receive U.S. food assistance in exchange for halting uranium enrichment activities -- appear likely to be slowed during the transition process.
The two nuclear negotiators pledged to support activities to promote stability in the North, according to Lim (United Press International, Dec. 23).
Beijing has shown little interest in joining Seoul, Tokyo and Washington in preparing for the potential collapse of the regime in Pyongyang, Reuters reported. This stance has seemingly persisted even in the wake of Kim Jong Il's death.
China is the North's top ally and economic benefactor. North Korea, in turn, is seen to provide Beijing with a buffer against U.S. influence in the region.
“Beijing has been reluctant to engage in this kind of dialogue, although Chinese thinkers have increasingly acknowledged privately the need for such an authoritative conversation," according to Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
It remains to be seen whether this posture will change as China undergoes its own leadership change next year (Tarrant/Gopalakrishnan, Reuters/Calgary Sun, Dec. 23).
The question of Kim Jong Un's youth and inexperience -- he is believed to be in his late 20s and only in recent years been groomed for rule -- and the military's willingness to follow him are raising security concerns in Washington and among the North's neighbors, the Associated Press reported.
"Worries are high," said Baek Seung-joo of the South's Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. "Kim Jong Un is too young, and it's possible that elite generals' loyalty to him may grow thin in the long run."
"Where the guessing really starts is in determining who the power, or powers, behind the throne will be — who will be whispering in his ear and to whom he will be listening," said Ralph Cossa of the Pacific Forum CSIS. "The military remains a power behind the throne, but just how powerful and who speaks for the military are still not clear."
Early reports have suggested a quiet transition in leadership.
Observers have said the North might carry out additional provocations as a means of demonstrating the younger Kim's authority. Two 2010 attacks that killed 50 South Koreans have been viewed as a strategy for strengthening Kim Jong Un's position ahead of his assumption of power.
Along with a massive conventional military the North is believed to hold enough plutonium for fewer than 10 nuclear weapons, though it has not demonstrated the capacity to mate nuclear warheads to missiles or bombs. The Stalinist state is also reported to hold thousands of tons of chemical warfare materials and an active biological weapons program (Eric Talmadge, Associated Press/Google News, Dec. 23).
Issue specialists said any developments in the nuclear impasse are not likely to occur before spring or summer 2012, the Yonhap News Agency reported. That would provide the nation with time to move past the death of Kim Jong Il and for setting the new power structure.
"I don't think we're going to see sudden collapse and instability in North Korea," said Michael Green, a Bush administration Asia specialist and present senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It is likely to be several months before the North again begins to assert itself, he said during a forum in Hawaii. North Korea intends to establish itself as a "mighty and prosperous state" in 2012, 100 years after the birth of first leader Kim Il Sung.
"I think what we know about their program suggests pretty strongly that they are preparing for a third nuclear test and maybe missile tests," Green said. "The North Koreans have a game plan to demonstrate then to the world and their people their full nuclear weapons capability."
Cossa added: "North Korea already has a game plan in place and my guess is it will continue along that plan."
He argued that any further talks are likely to offer "the appearance of progress" rather than serious movement on shutting down the North's nuclear operations.
"If we do go back to talks I don't think anyone really expects that it will really lead to denuclearization," Cossa said. "We've so lowered the bar that things will occur that will be declared as breakthroughs that are relatively meaningless," he added (Yonhap News Agency/Korea Times, Dec. 23).