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NCNK Members' Reactions: Articles and Interviews

NCNK Briefing Book: After Kim Jong-il

The following articles and interviews were written or given by members of the National Committee on North Korea. Views of individual members are their own and should not be attributed to the National Committee itself.


Charles Armstrong, in a December 19 op-ed for CNN, reviews the enigmatic life of Kim Jong-il

[Kim Jong-il] enjoyed film and the arts, fine food and drink, and kept late hours, but he was not the unstable and intellectually vacuous playboy of South Korean propaganda. He certainly lacked the charisma and outgoing personality of his father, but foreign officials who met him -- including South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- described him as intelligent, well-informed, even charming.

Bradley Babson, commenting for 38 North on December 20, weighs the chances for economic reform:

Looking ahead, the key question is not whether there will be changes in economic policy but whether changes will be in the direction of building a market economy or governed by a new dynamic of competition for resources among contending parties for power.  The more the new regime leans towards the Worker’s Party, the more likely it will follow Chinese supported policies of developing a market economy under the guidance of the Party and gradually shift to funding defense needs from a centralized budget rather than the military having its own economic organs such as trading companies and banks that service them. The more the regime tilts towards the military, the more likely that competition for resources will trump incentives for pursuing systemic change. 

Robert Carlin, speaking with NPR's Margaret Warner on December 20, discusses the difficulties of collecting intelligence on North Korea:

If the North Koreans want to keep a secret, they know how to do it.

The death of a leader would be one of the most closely held secrets that the leadership would want to keep to itself while it was making the preparations, making sure all the security and military preparations were in place. So it's not a surprise to me [that US intelligence wasn't aware of Kim Jong-il's death until it was announced].

The question is, did it leak out in North Korea ahead of time, and if it did leak out, did we miss those signs? And I don't know the answer to that.

Victor Cha ponders China's future relationship with North Korea, writing in the New York Times opinion page on December 19:

North Korea as we know it is over. Whether it comes apart in the next few weeks or over several months, the regime will not be able to hold together after the untimely death of its leader, Kim Jong-il. How America responds — and, perhaps even more important, how America responds to how China responds — will determine whether the region moves toward greater stability or falls into conflict.

Patrick Cronin comments on the potential for change and continuity in North Korea's future in a December 19 press release for the Center for a New American Security:

Kim Jong Il has left North Korea in a period of colossal uncertainty.  Uncertainty does not mean collapse anytime soon, but neither does it suggest a quick breakthrough or a leap into conflict.

John Delury and Chung-in Moon, in a Global Asia article, write that the new regime will have to balance economic reform with its perceived need for a nuclear deterrent (a version of this article also appeared in the Korea Times).

Pyongyang has been loudly promising its citizens that 2012 marks the year of North Korea’s emergence as a “strong and prosperous great nation” (Gangsong Daeguk). If Kim Jong Il could claim nothing else, he did achieve at least one thing for North Korea—the ultimate “strength” of nuclear deterrence. Now, it’s up to his son Kim Jong Un to achieve the other half of the equation: prosperity. . . But the issue at stake is whether Kim Jong Un can enhance North Korea’s prosperity without undermining the source of its strength – its nuclear weapons program

Don Gregg, former US Ambassador to the ROK, argues for a coordinated response in a December 19 op-ed article for BBC News  : 

I hope that the US will accept Kim Jong-un's succession in as gracious a manner as possible.

The first responses from Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing will be weighed very carefully by Pyongyang, and will have considerable impact on future relations with the countries concerned.

David Kang, in a December 19 news release for USC, discusses Kim Jong-un's background and the challenges he will face.

Kim Jong-un will face significantly greater obstacles to ruling than did his father in 1994. When Kim Jong-il took power in 1994, North Korea was only a few years past close Soviet and Chinese support. At that time, the country had not yet experienced the devastating famine of the late 1990s that killed perhaps one million citizens. The economy was still relatively robust, and of course the nuclear issue had only begun to emerge. Kim Jong-un will attempt to take and hold power in much more diminished circumstances. The country is weaker, poorer, has faced almost two decades of withering international pressure over its nuclear policies, and the citizens themselves are slowly learning more about the outside world than ever before. In these conditions, it is not clear whether any ruler can find a viable set of policies to solve the daunting internal and external problems facing North Korea. 

Kenneth Quinones, writing in Newsweek Japan on December 21, discusses the importance of the military in North Korea's internal power dynamics, arguing that its prominent role will impede the chances of reform.

Given Kim Jong Il’s preference for the KPA over the KWP since 1998, it does not seem likely that Jang Seong-taek, Kim’s brother-in-law by marriage to Kim’s younger sister Kim Kyong-hui, possess greater political power than senior generals.  Some “Pyongyang watchers” in Seoul claim that this is the case, going so far as to assert that Jang is successor Kim Jong Eun’s regent.  Jang is known to be a wealthy businessman who at times managed the Kim family’s financial assets.  But his political fortunes have risen and fallen.

Leon Sigal, in a December 21 article for The National Interest, argues that the US and South Korea should act to resume nuclear negotiations soon. (Writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sigal also points out that nuclear negotiations underway when Kim Il-sung died in 1994 paralleled those underway today.)

Those who yearn for regime change are playing up the possibility of a power struggle in Pyongyang and instability within the country. But rash speculation could be dangerous. The prudent course would be to resume negotiations soon and test whether Kim Jong-un is ready to follow his father’s lead and suspend his nuclear and missile programs.

Scott Snyder, in a December 19 op-ed for CNN, explores the strategic imperatives of North Korean stability:

Kim Jong Il allowed institutions -- with the exception of the military -- to atrophy before belatedly revamping the party apparatus in September 2010. The system is fragmented and stovepiped so that only the leader can exercise control. A vacuum at the top could lead to bureaucratic infighting, with no person able to step in and exert authority across institutions. 

Interviews and Talks

Charles Armstrong, on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, discusses what's next for North Korea and the region.

Brad Babson talks with Keith Shortall on the Main Public Broadcasting Network about North Korea's economy and prospects for change, and discusses North Korean marketization and the prospects of economic reform with VOA (interview starts at about 3'50").

Peter Beck speaks with CNN's Kristie Lu Stout about Kim Jong-il's legacy and what's next for North Korea.

John Delury talks to CNN's Monita Rajpaul about Kim Jong-il's family and who will hold power, and to Bloomberg Television's Rishaad Salamat about the implications of Kim Jong-il's death for the Korean Peninsula.

Don Gregg speaks to Bloomberg Television's Susan Li about North Korea's new leaders, and to Bloomberg's Rishaad Salamat on the DPRK's desire for a "smooth transition."

Amb. Thomas Hubbard, Charles Armstrong, Gordon Flake, and John Park discuss the current situation in North Korea at a panel discussion hosted by The Korea Society.

Balbina Hwang and Amb. Don Gregg talk to Gwen Ifill on the PBS Newshour about how US policy toward North Korea should move forward (Discussion starts at 18'50"). 

Marcus Noland talks with Steven Weisman in a Peterson Perspectives Audio Interview, and discusses North Korea's poverty and famine in an interview with Bloomberg Television's Tom Keene.

Scott Snyder, Victor Cha, and Amb. Jack Pritchard hold a panel discussion on the future of the Korean Peninsula at the Korea Economic Institute on December 20.

James Walsh discusses the challenges facing Kim Jong-un in an interview with NECN in Boston.