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.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
South Koreans watch a TV news program at the Seoul Railway Station Tuesday. North Korea's Kim Jong-il appointed his youngest son as an army general, giving the son his first known official title in an apparent sign that he is being groomed as the country's next leader. South Korean media said Kim Jong-un is shown in a portrait on the screen.

The prospect of a Western-educated son taking the reins of power from Kim Jong-il, the ailing leader of a closed and backward North Korea, may sound promising.

But as US officials try to divine what a possible transition from Mr. Kim to his son Kim Jong-un would mean for US-North Korea relations and for the myriad security issues confronting north Asia, regional analysts are generally more focused on the implications of the son’s young age – either 28 or 29 – than on his years of schooling in Switzerland.

Would such a young leader, especially one with knowledge of a prosperous and free world beyond North Korea’s borders, be more apt to press for changes to bring his country into the 21st century? Or would such a young and untested newcomer to the North’s leadership be most anxious to prove his toughness to the country’s military hierarchy?

“At first glance this can seem like a good thing – that with new people in power, maybe a younger generation will be more open to modernizing the country and opening up to the West,” says Jim Walsh, a North Korea expert in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s security studies program.

“But in the near term any transition is likely to be bad news,” he adds. The “natural inclination” of any new leader, and especially a young and untried one, he says, would be “to be more assertive … in a period of vulnerability.”

Noting that any transition in leadership could deteriorate into a fight for power, Mr. Walsh adds, “We will have to get through what could be a very dangerous period.”

Son is promoted

North Korea’s state-run media announced ahead of the opening Tuesday of a rare Workers’ Party meeting that Kim Jong-un had been promoted to the rank of four-star general, a move widely interpreted as paving the way for him to assume power from his father. The son could also be granted a leadership title within the Workers’ Party, some experts speculate, as a way of giving him standing in the regime’s two power bases. Kim Jong-il was reelected by the party congress, though analysts were quick to point out that doesn’t mean a transition is not in progress.

Whatever role Kim Jong-un takes, many US officials and North Korea experts foresee a period of risk and turbulence ahead as a new and untried leadership moves to prove itself. Defense Secretary Robert Gates appeared to to be reflecting that thinking earlier this year when he attributed the deadly sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, to a rising young leader seeking to silence any misgivings over his rise and to establish legitimacy among military leaders.

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

“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.”

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