Before President Obama can determine whether Kim Jong-un is a man with whom he might be able to do business, U.S. intelligence analysts will need to determine whether the new young king can wield absolute power over the military and citizenry the way his father and grandfather did.
A key test of this proposition will be whether Kim, believed to be 27 or 28, will move forward with a third nuclear test that was widely expected for 2012. The regime of the recently departed Kim Jong-il promised that 2012 would be the year North Korea would become a “full nuclear weapons state,” language that most analysts interpreted to mean Kim intended to authorize the country’s third nuclear test.
Whether North Korea will move forward on this will depend on the younger Kim’s relationship with the country’s military, which the U.S. has tried to make inroads with in recent years despite worsening overall relations between the two countries. Experts expect significant jockeying for power inside the military even if it embraces the cult of the Kim family and its latest, youthful successor.
Mike Green, who was senior director for Asia at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said in an interview Monday that the pace of U.S. and North Korean military contacts was increasing at the end of the Bush administration, similar to those that occurred at the end of the Clinton administration.
Such contacts often took place at what is known as the “truce village” on the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas. Traditionally the truce village has been a place for discussing the details of armistice agreement that ended the Korean War. But in recent years, these discreet meetings also have been a way for the U.S. military to survey officers in the Korean People’s Army on their nuclear program.
“The message from the Korean People’s Army when they have talked to us or the South Koreans has been a clear statement that they intend to have nuclear weapons,” said Green. “Whereas when Kim Jong-il talked to Madeleine Albright or other U.S. officials, he says they are open to denuclearization.”
The death of Kim Jong-il does present a problem for the Obama administration, which had been planning to unveil a new package of food aid to North Korea in a bid to revive the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions that had faltered this year.
On the day Kim’s death was announced, North Korea fired a short-range missile in a test and put its military on high alert. U.S. officials were watching closely for early signs on how the younger Kim might assert himself.
Mark Groombridge, a deputy editor of Lignet who participated in the six-party talks under Bush, said that “North Korea’s actions have been restrained” thus far, noting that the short-range missile tests were not a surprise and could have been more provocative.
“To my knowledge, there is no sign of action or activity at nuclear sites for now,” Groombridge added. “There does not seem to be an overt move to depose Kim Jong-un. I am not suggesting that he has the power that his father did, but even if he is the titular head of a government controlled by generals, I think the generals are fine with that arrangement for now.”
A U.S. official who asked not to be named said Kim Jong-un’s introduction to power may be rocky. “A lot depends on whether the power centers of the regime coalesce around Kim Jong-un or see this period of uncertainty as an opportunity to change the balance of power internally,” the source said. “Those are very tricky calculations to make in an authoritarian society like North Korea.”
Very little is known about the young Kim other than the fact that he spent some time in an international school in the 1990s. Former classmates say that he favors expensive American-brand sneakers, loved basketball, and worshipped Michael Jordan and Hollywood action star Jean-Claude Van Damme.
His uncle, Jang Seong-taek, is widely expected to be the equivalent of a regent in the coming years, managing the North Korean government as the new leader becomes accustomed to power.
“The regime will try to convey a sense of order during the mourning and transition period,” the U.S. official said. “They will probably try to keep things calm externally while the succession maneuvering takes place.”
Green, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University, said: “On the surface we will not see much. The generals depend on the cult of personality of the Kim dynasty to retain power themselves. Underneath the surface there could be real jostling for position.”
Green added: “For the near term, they all have a stake in making this transition work. The pressures will be coming some time next when he has to decide to test a nuclear weapon again.”