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North Korea succession: Analysts see turbulent period ahead

Amid signs that North Korea's Kim Jong-il is paving the way for his Swiss-educated son to assume power, analysts caution that his youth, and need to prove himself, could pose risks for the US.

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Events in North Korea will be unpredictable if an aging military hierarchy is asked to bow to a virtually unknown twenty-something.

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“Most of the senior military leaders would be 50 to 55 years older than this son, so they’d have to be asking themselves how much longer they would have a role in the government,” says Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. “And we know that when replacements take place in North Korea they usually occur as the result of a purge or a ‘traffic accident,’ so that could be cause for some instability.”

At least publicly, US officials are taking a wait-and-see approach to events in North Korea, suggesting that at most the US will consult with partners in the region on the ramifications of any transition in leadership.

"Strategic patience"

“The United States is watching developments in North Korea carefully, and we will be engaged with all of our partners in the Asian Pacific region as we try to assess the meaning of what’s transpiring there,” said Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in comments to reporters Monday. He added that it is “still too early to tell in terms of next steps, or in fact, what’s going on inside the country’s leadership.”

What strikes some North Asia experts is that the US is sticking with a policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea – reinforcing relations with North Korea’s neighbors while awaiting the North’s compliance with international demands and keeping contacts with Pyongyang to a minimum – despite the Obama administration’s stated preference for dialogue and engagement.

"Obama used to say talking is not a reward, talking is a way to protect US national interests,” says MIT’s Walsh. “This is exactly the time we need to be talking to North Korea, so we avoid the misperceptions and miscalculations that could lead to some very unfortunate circumstances.”

Other analysts say the US should stick to its path and demand that the North honor its 2007 commitment to denuclearize before making any gestures toward it. But Mr. Bennett, the Rand analyst, says this may be the moment for the US to extend a hand, in particular toward the North Korean people.

“One could argue that if we do see a succession, that gives the US the opportunity to say, ‘For six months or a year we are going to take actions, like extending humanitarian aid, that are more friendly towards the new government,’ and give them every chance in a clearly limited time frame to respond,” he says.

Bennett says that approach “would have the added advantage of starting to prepare a suffering people for what may one day be massive aid from the US and South Korea – because you just never know when the regime could come completely apart.”