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Experts Debate North Korea After Kim


Recent reports of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il's poor health have led to speculation about what changes could be in store for the reclusive Stalinist country after Mr. Kim's eventual death. VOA's Kent Klein asked several experts for their views.

North Korea's government is one of the most secretive in the world, so many U.S.-based Korea experts agree that it is almost impossible for people other than the rulers in Pyongyang to know what might happen after Kim Jong Il dies.

In the absence of verifiable information, experts such as Gary Samore, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, say all they can provide is an educated guess.

"There is so much we do not know and in particular, we do not understand the dynamics of the internal decision-making within the elite," said Gary Samore.

The question of who might succeed Kim Jong Il when he dies is wrapped in mystery. As far as Western experts know, there is no succession protocol in place. Kim Jong Il came to power in North Korea after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in the 1990s.

And while Kim Jong Il has several adult children, Gary Samore says it is not clear that they would continue the family dynasty.

"Either they are in the doghouse [out of favor] because they have misbehaved, or they are far too young to be credible candidates," he said. "So most likely, people think, you would have some kind of collective leadership, including military figures and senior party figures, rather than a single, dominant leader."

Gordon Flake, Executive Director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, which promotes U.S.-Asia relations, says a collective leadership in North Korea would be run mostly, if not entirely, by the military. But he says history is no help in trying to figure that out.

"We have never had a North Korea without a Kim at the head, so this is not a case when we can look back to past precedents and cite what has happened," said Gordon Flake.

Several experts, including Flake, do not expect major reforms or changes from whoever succeeds Kim Jong Il.

"The military seems to be the most opaque, reactionary, conservative body in North Korean society," he said. "And so I have a difficult time expecting anything other than that type of behavior out of them."

Brad Glosserman, Executive Director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, Hawaii, sees a military-run North Korea becoming even more repressive.

"I think it would become more immobile," said Brad Glosserman. "I think it would become even harder to figure out what is happening. And I think what you would see is a leadership that would be struggling, essentially, with a succession crisis that it is yet to experience. I think that that would only encourage its every reactionary, conservative, whatever the most appropriate adjective, impulses are."

Gary Samore adds that a more repressive military government in Pyongyang would guard against instability.

"The population is so suppressed and repressed, and of course, the government retains a very powerful apparatus of internal security," said Samore. "Most people think it is unlikely that you would see a sudden collapse of the state."

Experts are almost unanimous in stating that a post-Kim government would want to hold on to its nuclear weapons. But Brad Glosserman sees North Korea's nuclear arsenal as less of a threat than Pakistan's because there appears to be more unity among leaders in Pyongyang than in Islamabad.

"I would be far more concerned about the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal than I would about North Korea's," he said. "So I think that that would be fairly locked-down, and I would not be worried about someone getting their hands on it and doing something with it."

Glosserman says he is worried about two possible post-Kim situations. He says one faction in the government could invite China to intervene militarily, which could anger South Korea. Or, he, says there could be an international misunderstanding.

"If there is uncertainty and if there is a succession crisis in the North, they will be extraordinarily sensitive, hypervigilant, in fact, and worried about anyone exploiting that," said Glosserman. "So the danger there is that someone, in their paranoia, will misread something that either Seoul or the United States, or perhaps even China, does in such a way that it creates a very dangerous situation."

In any event, experts will keep watching for any trickle of information from Pyongyang that might give an indication of the North Korea's future.