In the wake of the death of dictator Kim Jong Il, leadership in North Korea is to be divided between Kim's youngest son, an uncle and the military, Reuters on Wednesday quoted an informed source as saying (see GSN, Dec. 20).
The elder Kim, prior to suffering a reported fatal heart attack on Saturday, had groomed son Kim Jong Un as his successor. The younger Kim is said to be in his 20s and there have been questions outside of North Korea about his readiness to take power.
The ruling structure for now, though, will involve Kim Jong Un, his uncle Jang Song-thaek and representatives from the nation's powerful armed forces, according to the source, who has connections to the North and its top ally, China.
The military has thrown its support behind Kim Jong Un, reducing the chances for a power struggle, according to the individual.
"It's very unlikely," the source said. "The military has pledged allegiance to Kim Jong Un."
The younger Kim is not likely to oppose the cooperative ruling system in the short term, even though his predecessors held ultimate power in Pyongyang, said Koh Yu-hwan, head of the Seoul-based Korean Association of North Korean Studies. "Considering the tradition of strongarm rule by his father and grandfather, things can't be easy for him," the expert said.
There is the potential for the ruling coalition to pursue change in the nation, though that cannot be taken for granted, said Korea specialist Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS.
"Over the long term, there appears to be some hope, primarily emanating from Beijing, that Kim Jong Un will take North Korea down the path of Chinese-style reform, apparently based on the belief that Jang is or will be a 'reformer,'" Cossa stated in a written commentary. "Who knows, this may be true. While this could relieve the suffering of the North Korean people over time, it will do little to promote the cause of denuclearization, however."
Five nations -- China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States -- have spent years in a diplomatic effort to persuade North Korea to shutter its nuclear-weapon operations, with limited success. Six-party talks were last held three years ago, and Pyongyang formally abandoned the process in April 2009. Since then it has conducted a second nuclear trial blast, unveiled a uranium enrichment plant that could be used to produce nuclear-weapon material and fired off various missiles in tests -- most recently on Monday (see GSN, Dec. 19).
North Korea under Kim Jong Il in recent years had indicated its willingness to return to the talks, sending officials to meet with U.S. and South Korean diplomats in recent months. The Obama administration this week had reportedly planned to offer new food assistance to the North in exchange for the regime's pledge to halt uranium enrichment activities. Such a deal could be a major step toward resuming the full nuclear negotiations (Benjamin Kang Lim, Reuters, Dec. 21).
Representatives from Pyongyang and Washington conducted talks on food aid after the declaration of Kim's death, the New York Times on Wednesday quoted the U.S. State Department as saying. The meeting in Beijing did not resolve the matter.
"So we’re going to have to keep talking about this,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “And given the mourning period, frankly, we don’t think we’ll be able to have much more clarity and resolve these issues before the new year" (Choe Sang-hun, New York Times, Dec. 21).
Observers have said that any forward progress in the diplomatic push is likely to be slowed during the transition process.
The informed source told Reuters that Monday's North Korean missile testing was aimed at deterring any aggression by the United States. Further trials are not anticipated in the near future.
"With the missile test, (North) Korea wanted to deliver the message that they have the ability to protect themselves," according to the source. "But (North) Korea is unlikely to conduct a nuclear test in the near future unless provoked" by Seoul or Washington ( Lim, Reuters).
The North Korean military has boosted its alert posture, while an increased number of security personnel are being dispersed around the country, South Korean intelligence officials said in an Associated Press report. There are no indications that troops are being mobilized, according to the report (Associated Press I/Yahoo!News, Dec. 21).
The State Department has indicated that any diplomatic efforts with the North are not likely to occur until the completion of the formal period of mourning for the former leader's death, Kyodo News reported. Some issue specialists say the next set of direct talks or the full six-nation negotiations might even be farther off.
"I know North Korea press is reporting that Kim Jong Un is the great successor or whatever. ... We want to be certain that we know who is in charge before we start negotiating anything," said Michael Mazza, a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.
" I don't think we will be returning to the six-party talks anytime soon," he added (Kyodo News, Dec. 21).
Other experts offered a more optimistic take on the situation, the Korea Herald reported.
“We will have to watch North Korea for about one or two months after Kim’s funeral. But the U.S. is not likely to take much time in engaging in a dialogue with North Korea,” said Yang Moo-jin, of the South's University of North Korean Studies.
“Heir apparent Kim Jong Un may complete the unfinished Washington-Pyongyang talks to announce the year 2012 as the initial year of a power state,” he told the newspaper.
The North's spiraling economic and food troubles make it more likely to return to the negotiations, said one-time South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun.
“If outsiders allow North Korea to break free from economic and diplomatic isolation, it will be easily persuaded. Then, six-party talks could resume earlier than expected,” he said during a radio interview (Kim Yoon-mi, Korea Herald, Dec. 20).
President Obama emphasized the need to avoid instability in and around North Korea during a Monday telephone discussion with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, AP quoted the White House as saying. Obama also reached South Korean President Lee Myung-bak by telephone on Sunday, while his administration has kept in touch with China and Russia.
``We are deeply concerned with the well-being of the North Korean people and our thoughts and prayers are with them during these difficult times,'' Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a prepared statement issued on Monday.
``It is our hope that the new leadership of the D.P.R.K. will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by honoring North Korea's commitments, improving relations with its neighbors, and respecting the rights of its people," she added (Lee/Pennington, Associated Press II/Minnesota Public Radio, Dec. 20).
Beijing, which apparently learned of Kim's death before the formal announcement on Monday, is pressing Seoul, Tokyo and Washington to avoid moves that might promote instability, Reuters reported. China hopes to avoid the collapse of the government of North Korea, to prevent a flood of refugees into its territory and to maintain a buffer state from U.S. influence in the region.
"Preserving the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula is in the common interests of all sides," the Xinhua News Agency quoted Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as saying on Tuesday during a conversation with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba. Yang also delivered that message in calls to Clinton and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan.
"China is willing to work with Japan to continue making efforts to together protect the peace and stability of the peninsula and the region," Yang said (Raju Gopalakrishnan, Reuters II, Dec. 21).
In the wake of the death of dictator Kim Jong Il, leadership in North Korea is to be divided between Kim's youngest son, an uncle and the military, Reuters on Wednesday quoted an informed source as saying.