Did Kim Jong-il death ruin breakthrough deal on North Korea nukes?

Before the death of Kim Jong-il, the US was close to working out a deal to give food aid to North Korea in exchange for steps toward denuclearization. Now those talks are on hold. 

North Koreans make a call of condolence for deceased leader Kim Jong-il at the Kim Il-sung Plaza in Pyongyang Wednesday.

The death of Kim Jong-il has disrupted an American plan to encourage North Korea to curb its nuclear arsenal, and the uncertainties surrounding the “dear leader’s” replacement mean US officials have little choice for now but to sit tight.

Before the announcement of Mr. Kim's death Sunday, the US was on the verge of completing a deal to exchange humanitarian assistance for North Korean steps toward denuclearization.

But as Kim's replacement and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, tries to establish himself in his father’s place, it will likely be months – and potentially tense and surprise-laden months – before the North Korean leadership will be ready to reengage diplomatically, many North Asian analysts say.

“We may be able to get back to talks, perhaps in months, but with Kim Jong-un looking to establish himself, we also have to realize that this may not be his highest priority,” says Bruce Klingner, a northeast Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Last week, US officials were negotiating with North Korean officials over a plan that tentatively called for the US to send a substantial amount of food assistance to North Korea in monthly shipments of 20,000 tons. In return, Pyongyang would have agreed to suspend its uranium-enrichment program, reopen its Yongbyon nuclear facility to international nuclear inspectors, and suspend any further nuclear or missile tests.

The accord would have reportedly opened the door to resumption of negotiations on North Korea’s denuclearization that collapsed in 2008. The six-party talks include the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia, and Japan

But several key issues, including the facility inspections and just how intrusive they would be, had still not been finalized when word came of Kim’s death, State Department officials say. “It is a monitoring issue, among other things,” said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland Tuesday, responding to questions about what had not been resolved in last week’s talks.

Even before Kim’s death, however, some analysts were skeptical that North Korea’s powerful military would have accepted the demands the US was making. The assumption now is that the 20-something Kim Jong-un will need some time to establish his credibility with the military, making an accord considerably less likely, especially any time soon, these analysts add.

There has been some speculation that North Korea could transition to a “collective leadership” in the place of one ruling Kim, but that might not help US interests, says Mr. Klingner of Heritage. “The hardest of the hardliners in such a leadership might be unwilling to move quickly ahead with the US,” he says. 

With China wielding considerable influence over North Korea, the US will have to remain in close contact with Beijing during Kim Jong-un's succession. Some diplomatic experts like John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, say Kim’s passing and the rise in his place of a young, untried son, could present an opportunity for the US to encourage China to see the benefits of a reunified Korea.

But other analysts caution that China, valuing stability in its neighborhood above all else, is unlikely to look favorably on the prospect of losing a Communist ally that has fallen increasingly under its influence in recent years. “China … would prefer to keep North Korea as a buffer state between it and the thousands of US-allied troops sitting on the demilitarized zone,” writes Amy Stoddard, an Asia specialist with the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.

To be sure, Kim Jong-un will need to demonstrate a degree of independence from Beijing to suit his country’s nationalist streak, but both the US and South Korea must be alert to the fact that Beijing's interests regarding the Korean peninsula are not identical with their own.

The two “must make sure not to give Beijing carte blanche in defining the future of the peninsula,” says Ms. Stoddard

Indeed, finding substantial common ground with China on North Korea may not be easy, especially given China’s growing reluctance to even criticize (let alone punish) Pyongyang’s belligerence towards South Korea, says Klingner.

“There has been some overlap [in American and Chinese interests],” he says, “but the truth is that in recent years China has tended to be more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.”  

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