North Korea Leader’s Death Raises Nuclear Risks for Obama

North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Il At 55th Anniversary Parade
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il salutes during a military parade celebrating the 55th anniversary of the country at Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang, Korea. Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images via 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 the 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 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.

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 another foreign policy challenge for the Obama administration 11 months before the U.S. presidential election.

Asia ‘Pivot’

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.

North Korea was at the top of Clinton’s agenda today. She met with her special representative for North Korea, Glyn Davies, and later held talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, whose visit to Washington was planned before Kim’s death.

“We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea as well as in ensuring regional peace and stability,” Clinton said at an appearance with Gemba.

‘Deeply Concerned’

“We reiterate our hope for improved relations with the people of North Korea and remain deeply concerned about their well being,” Clinton added. Gemba said he and Clinton had agreed on the need for “concrete action” by North Korea on the nuclear issue.

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said the U.S. has “no new concerns” about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. The U.S. is monitoring the situation in North Korea and has consulted with allies South Korea and Japan as well as China and Russia, the other members of the six-party talks focused on North Korea shedding its nuclear weapons, Carney said at a briefing.

Strong Message

Kim’s death could 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.

“What needs to be done quickly is to openly offer North Korea a reasonable path forward that does not appear to be designed to undermine the regime, while in private sending a strong message that there is no other option but for North Korea to begin the process of opening up,” said Charles Pritchard, who led U.S.-North Korea talks in 1997 and now is president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington.

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.

Worrisome Scenarios

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 the 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 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty.

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 to take over.

‘Communist Monarchy’

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 past five years, Green said U.S. officials are concerned 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.

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.”

Crippled Economy

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.

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.

“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,” he said, 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, said “it will be more difficult to get answers or positions out of Pyongyang under current circumstances.”

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