N Korean heir Kim jong-un 311.
(photo credit: Reuters)
WASHINGTON - The death of North Korean leader Kim jong-il could dim hopes for fresh nuclear talks with the United States and its key Asian allies as an untested and largely unknown heir takes charge of one of the world's most feared atomic renegade states.
The White House said on Sunday that President Barack Obama has been told of reports that Kim had died and was in close touch allies in South Korea and Japan, which along with Washington have been engaged in six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program.
"We remain committed to stability on the Korean peninsula, and to the
freedom and security of our allies," White House press secretary Jay
Carney said in a written statement.
But news of Kim's death comes at a tricky time for the Obama
administration as it weighs whether to re-engage with Pyongyang on the
nuclear issue and whether to provide food aid for millions of North
Koreans hard hit by shortages.
More crucially -- both for Washington and its close ally Seoul -- is the
question of whether Kim's hermetic state can survive his death and
complete a power transition that most analysts expect to favor his
presumptive heir, leader-in-waiting Kim Jong-un..
"Up until tonight, if anybody had asked you what would be the most
likely scenario under which the North Korean regime could collapse, the
answer would be the sudden death of Kim Jong-il," said Victor Cha, a
Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in
Washington and a member of the White House National Security Council
under former President George W. Bush.
"I think right now we're in that scenario, and we don't know how it is
going to turn out. But I think we're definitely in it now," Cha said.
Kim's reported death came as the US envoy for North Korean nuclear
issues, Glyn Davies, returned to Washington for consultations after
talks in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing over the nuclear issue.
US officials have said no decision on restarting the talks is imminent,
but have also recently relaunched talks with North Korean diplomats on
resuming food aid -- a step widely seen as a positive signal.
The United States and its chief Asian allies have resisted calls to
restart the so-called "six-party" talks involving the two Koreas, the
United States, China, Japan and Russia which broke down in 2008, and
United Nations inspectors were expelled from North Korea in 2009.
US officials remain leery of North Korea's intentions and doubts have
grown amid reports that Kim Jong-il's health problems were opening a
transition plan to elevate to the top office his son Kim Jong-un -- a
man believed to be in his late 20s, and about whom little is known.
Some analysts said Kim's death -- and the transition to a young and
untested leader -- could darken the outlook for the nuclear talks.
"Everyone's immediate refrain is 'Oh, great, a tyrant is gone,'" said
Jim Walsh, a North Korea expert at the Massachussets Institute of
Technology's security studies program.
"But actually this is bad news, because it means we are entering a more
dangerous phase in North Korean, South Korean and US relations," Walsh
"Naturally, North Korea is going to be on the offensive. This young leader is going to have to prove his worth."
The United States, backed by Japan and South Korea, has demanded that
North Korea signal its sincerity on nuclear negotiations by halting
provocative actions such as the sinking of a South Korean warship and
the shelling of a South Korean island last year.
Some North Korea watchers have attributed the two attacks to efforts by
the younger Kim to demonstrate his leadership style, leading to fears
that new provocations could strain the already tense relationship
between North and South Korea.
"Kim Jong-un .... may feel it necessary in the future to precipitate a
crisis to prove his mettle to other senior leaders or to generate a
'rally-around-the-flag' effect," said Bruce Klingner, an Asia policy
analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Klingner said he believed fresh North Korean military action was unlikely in the near term.
"It is likely that such negotiations would be postponed as North Korea
goes through a mourning period, formalized succession process and
possible retrenchment of its foreign policies," he said in a written
Some North Korea experts said the leadership in Pyongyang was likely to
focus internally over the medium term as it seeks to firm up control
both during and after the succession.
"This competition can lead to internal conflicts," said security
analysis group STRATFOR in a commentary, adding that once these
conflicts are resolved it is possible Pyongyang may take a new attitude
toward the nuclear talks.
"Pyongyang has increasingly felt pressured by its growing dependence on
China, and these nuclear talks provide the potential to break away from
that dependence in the long term," STRATFOR said.