Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il presents a potential crisis for President Barack Obama, complicating U.S. efforts to press the regime to abandon its nuclear arsenal and cease belligerent behavior.
The demise of a 70-year-old ruler -- who frustrated three U.S. administrations with his pursuit of nuclear weapons, threats toward American allies and economic mismanagement that resulted in mass starvation -- ushers in a period of uncertainty for the isolated communist regime and North Asia. It increases the danger of misjudgment on the Korean peninsula, where 1.7 million troops from North and South Korea and the U.S. square off. The U.S. has 75,000 troops stationed in South Korea and Japan and is bound by treaty to defend its allies
“This is potentially a game-changing event,” Victor Cha, a former chief U.S. negotiator for North Korean nuclear talks under President George W. Bush, said in an interview. “If you asked experts what would be the most likely scenario for North Korea to collapse, the answer everyone would give you is ‘if Kim Jong Il died today.’ We’re in that scenario.”
The prospect of a crisis in the region -- whether a hardening of confrontational behavior or a collapse of the impoverished state triggering a humanitarian emergency -- is an additional foreign policy challenge for the the Obama administration 11 months before the U.S. presidential election and just as the U.S. completes its military withdrawal from Iraq.
Uncertainty over North Korea thrusts Asia to the forefront of the administration’s agenda, just weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement that the U.S. plans to “pivot” its attention to Asia. Stability in Asia is essential to Obama’s aim to make the region the engine of U.S. economic recovery, largely through expanded trade.
The transition in North Korea adds to risks for South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy. The Kospi index of shares closed down 3.4 percent in Seoul, and South Korea’s won sank 1.4 percent to 1,174.80 per dollar.
Kim’s passing may scuttle what may have been the first U.S. diplomatic breakthrough with the hermetic regime in a few years. South Korea’s Yonhap News reported two days ago that the U.S. would provide food aid to North Korea with the understanding that the regime would suspend uranium enrichment. U.S. officials declined to confirm the reports, and the death of Kim may put any deal on hold.
Cha, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, likened the focus on North Korea’s tenuous situation to efforts to peer into a fishbowl.
“We’re all going to try to look in from the outside, and at same time I think everyone will be very careful about not sticking their hand in the fishbowl,” Cha said.
Perhaps most probable among worrisome scenarios, according to former U.S. officials, is that Kim’s death may prompt his third-born son and anointed successor, Kim Jong Un, to accelerate nuclear weapons development and menace his neighbors in a show of force to consolidate his control.
“One question is: Will Kim Jong Un and others around him do something to prove him being in command?” said Michael Green, former National Security Council senior director for Asia under President George W. Bush. “In next 48 hours we won’t see that, but in the next weeks and months, I suspect we may.”
The Korea peninsula has technically been in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty.
Nuclear Weapons State
North Korean media has reported that the country will become “a full nuclear weapons state” in 2012; April will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the regime and its cult of dynastic personality. Kim Il Sung died in 1994, after grooming his son Kim Jong Il for a decade and a half.
Kim Jong Il’s third son has had far less preparation or time to consolidate his authority. Believed to be 28 or 29, he was publicly tapped for the job by his father only last year, when he was appointed to the second-highest military post within the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
“It’s the only communist monarchy in the world, and the king is dead. And when the king dies, even when he set his succession, there can still be rivalry and civil war,” said Green, now at CSIS and Georgetown University.
While the North has twice conducted underground nuclear tests in the last five years, Green said U.S. officials fear that the regime may go further by showcasing progress on triggering devices and miniaturization of a nuclear payload, or by launching more advanced ballistic missiles.
Following His Father
Bruce Klingner, a Korea specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and a former deputy chief for Korea at the Central Intelligence Agency, said Kim Jong Un is unlikely to abandon his father’s policies or his nuclear weapons as he seeks to consolidate his position.
Nuclear weapons, Klingner said in an interview, “provide security against the U.S. and South Korea in case of attacks” and force the world to “pay attention to Pyongyang. It gives them leverage in trying to extract economic benefits from the West.”
The Obama administration has said that it resumed direct talks in recent months after determining that engaging the regime might lessen the risk of violent provocations. Glyn Davies, the U.S. special envoy on North Korea policy, told reporters in Tokyo last week that further bilateral talks hinged on the totalitarian state’s changing its “provocative” behavior.
Kim leaves behind an economy crippled by mismanagement, crop failures, sanctions and a bungled currency revaluation. North Korea’s economy is less than 3 percent the size of South Korea’s and has relied on economic handouts since the 1990s, when an estimated 2 million people died from famine. The United Nations and the U.S. last year tightened economic sanctions that were imposed on the North for its nuclear weapons activities and two attacks in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans.
“If there was a deal on food aid, whatever deal has been struck is pretty much off the table now,” Bryce Wakefield of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington-based research institute, said in an interview. The U.S. wouldn’t be able to count on the North “to hold up its end of the deal,” and it will take time for North Korea to determine its own direction.
Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, agreed that “it will be more difficult to get answers or positions out of Pyongyang under current circumstances.”
Bruce W. Bennett, a defense analyst at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, California, said in an interview that a number of scenarios are possible in the coming months: North Korean elites try to install an alternate leader; assassination attempts; or a show of force by Kim Jong Un purging select officials or accelerating nuclear testing.
“We clearly should be trying to shape the event, but it’s not likely that we’re going to have much power,” Bennett said.
The U.S., Bennett said, will be heightening military warning and intelligence efforts to monitor North Korea, including shifting satellites, running reconnaissance aircraft and gathering intelligence from allies and from China on actions by the North Korean military and the potential for an internal uprising.
At midnight, Obama spoke with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and “reaffirmed the United States’ strong commitment to the stability of the Korean Peninsula and the security of our close ally,” according to a White House statement. The leaders agreed “to stay in close touch as the situation develops” and directed their national security teams to continue close coordination.
--With assistance from Margaret Talev and John Walcott in Washington, Bill Austin and Stuart Biggs in Tokyo and Sangwon Yoon and Eunkyung Seo in Seoul. Editors: Terry Atlas, Leslie Hoffecker
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