Kim Jong Il Dies…now what? by Chris Nelson


[The following is taken from the 19 December 2011 edition of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by the author. –CanKor.]

The body of DPRK leader Kim Jong-il lies in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace (Photo Reuters)

Our personal take is that uncertainty, and N. Korea, unfortunately always belong in the same sentence.

The Obama Administration must focus on two immediate problems: first, the obvious strategic risks created by the uncertainties… until it’s known if designated successor Kim Jong-on will be accepted by the power elites… the US, the ROK, Japan and China need to be ready for almost anything, so they need to be talking with each other;

Second, the Administration faces the problem of putting on hold, pending clarification of the obvious questions, what had increasingly started to look like a possible resumption of bilateral negotiations as a lead-in to possible resumption of the 6 Party nuclear talks.

It HAD been planned today to announce a massive food aid deal explicitly linked to nuclear/6PT issues, not humanitarian, so look to see if that goes ahead. The explicit strategic link to food, long overdue, is significant and bears scrutiny, if it takes place, since it heralds apparent White House acceptance of the link between weapons-related promises and benefits which it had been firmly resisting to this point, based on the DPRK’s record since the Bush Administration (Syria, HEU, nuke tests, Cheonan, etc.).

Further, it HAD been planned to decide today or tomorrow whether to announce a resumed US-NK bi-lateral with Special Envoy’s Glyn Davies and Ford Hart to Pyongyang, perhaps even by the end of the week…but with Kim’s funeral set for the 28th, this seems likely to be put on hold, along with everything else.

Today, one assumes that State and the NSC are replicating the Clinton-era 1994 internal debate over the wording of an official message of condolence…as Amb. Tom Hubbard recalls, the Clinton folks really agonized over what to say about the death of “Great Leader” Kim-il Sung, with far more evidence than now of sincere interest in a deal from Pyongyang.

Finally…and there’s debate on this…recent visitors to Administration players came away thinking they’d detected hints that a “very high level” US official would soon be sent to PY relatively soon IF things seemed to be proceeding. We asked if this meant the Davies/Hart mission noted above, and were firmly, if enigmatically informed “much more important”.

Hummm…other well-connected sources say they don’t buy this rumor. But if true…and again, all obviously depends on the lay of the land north of the DMZ…might the White House be prepared to seek another Asian breakthrough effort, a la Burma?

Jonathan Pollack, a skeptic, comments:

“I don’t have any reason to believe the administration would like to send a high level rep soon to see whether ‘another Burma’ is in the cards. I don’t know whether someone hinted at it or whether it’s someone’s imagination. Remember that HRC only went to Burma after there was tangible, unambiguous evidence of real policy change, not before, and we have no way of knowing what the state of internal play might be at this point–none.”

And, of course, skeptics on Capitol Hill will be poised to shoot anything like that down without a great deal more transparency and performance, but we take note of the rumor, given the food and bi-lat level mission clearly under discussion, results not announced. Surely no one today can say what might occur, until we know the real power structure situation in PY…and that could take months, no matter what appears on the surface for now.

That’s the scene for DC. Over there, we don’t see how anyone thinks they can speak with certainty about Kim Jung-un’s hold on power, whether he really has enough grip to take over as “Dear Leader” intended, and/or whether the senior generals and players like KJI’s brother-in-law Jang Sang-taek, or KJI’s sister, will in reality be in charge.

Long seen as powers behind the throne, these two served as co-regent for months, following KJI’s first bad stroke, so experts wonder if they will be content to rule through the Boy General…for now…or whether KJU will be knocked off literally or figuratively by one or the other of the presumed power factions.

SO by definition there’s a period of potentially very scary instability, since among the theories for the Cheonan sinking last March is that it was a muscle-flexer by Kim Jong-un. Remember, KJI was groomed for nearly 20 years before his takeover and it took him a while to consolidate. The kid has had very little time, and no one has ANY sense of his real capacities.

On the nuclear front, before this weekend, a lot of folks, including Jonathan Pollack and Andrei Lankov, strongly thought the DPRK under any leader will feel the need and so will test an HEU nuclear warhead in the next few months, since the previous explosions have been PU based, and they will want to demonstrate that the HEU program (all those centrifuges revealed to much shock last year) actually is real.

Ditto another attempt to prove they have an ICBM that works. Perhaps reassuringly, Lankov is dismissive of the notion of a real, nuclear tipped ICBM, but we don’t have access to classified intel on that, nor do we wish it! Life is complicated enough just on the public record.

As we reported last week, most analysts feel the DPRK leadership, whomever, understands that its hopes to influence next year’s elections in S. Korea (against LeeMB and the GNP’s hard line) would not be helped by some military “provocation” a la the Cheonan, but who knows what might motivate what and for whom?

Finally…what about China? How does Beijing see this? The International Crisis Group’s Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt is frank in warning that Beijing is discomfited by Kim’s sudden death, after several months of apparently improving health, as covered in a terrific early morning posting from Reuters:

China for years nudged Kim Jong-il to embrace economic reforms, but now he is dead will fear that any changes will come too quickly and unpredictably, threatening Beijing’s hold on its needy yet distrustful neighbor.

In China’s opaque relations with North Korea, much can rest on a single phrase, and one word that Beijing used in its formal reaction to the death of Kim — “distressed”, which can also be translated as “shocked” — conveyed some of the surprise and uncertainty probably weighing on Chinese policy-makers.

“This is really going to throw a wrench in Chinese plans,” said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the North East Asia project director with the International Crisis Group. “They, frankly, felt that Kim Jong-il was going to be around for a couple of years longer. They’ll be a lot more nervous about what happens next.”

From China’s perspective, much now depends on Kim’s twenty-something son, Kim Jong-un, and whether he can secure his succession quickly.

Protecting stability on China’s 1,415-km (880-mile) frontier with the North and throughout the region will be paramount, particularly with Beijing’s leaders grappling with their own attention-consuming succession from late next year, when President Hu Jintao steps down as Communist Party chief.

“This has really come out of the blue. It’s not like it had been rumoured for a while giving everyone time to properly prepare,” said Cai Jian, an expert on Korean affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai. “China’s biggest worry will be over North Korea’s stability, and China’s aim will be to ensure the country remains stable,” said Cai. “I think security will be stepped up in North Korea, and China is also likely to tighten security along the border.”

Reuters goes on to quote various Chinese academic experts. We are frankly skeptical of a firm prediction that the advent of Kim Jong-un will bring in serious economic reforms. Until this point, most experts have felt that the Kim Family Regime has resisted genuine reforms, despite years of Chinese hope and pressure, based on the historic example of the fate of Eastern European dictatorships brought down by revolutions of rising expectations.

But that’s a discussion for another day.

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