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North Korea Signals Succession Plan as American Reporters Face Trial

June 3, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has signaled he plans to have his third son succeed him, while Pyongyang plans a trial for two U.S. reporters: Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who work for Current TV. Analysts examine the developments.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s one of the most secretive nations on Earth, and this evening the government of North Korea is expected to further demonstrate how unwelcoming it is as it holds a trial for two American reporters.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who work for Current TV, the cable and Web channel co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore, were arrested on the North Korea-China border in March.

Their trial comes amid major political changes. Yesterday, word leaked out that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who reportedly suffered a stroke last year, had appointed his third son, 26-year-old Kim Jong Un, as his successor.

And all of this comes, of course, amid North Korean announcements that it conducted nuclear weapons and several missile tests.

To help sort out the situation, we’re joined now by Victor Cha, director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007. He now holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And Lucie Morillon, Washington director for Reporters Without Borders, an international non-profit organization dedicated to press freedom.

Well, Victor Cha, how much do we really know about Kim Jong Un, the designated successor?

VICTOR CHA, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, Jeffrey, we know very little. Actually, we know less about Kim Jong Un than we do about most of the North Korean system. We know that he’s the third, the youngest of Kim Jong Il’s sons, that he was — this is a son he had with his third wife, and presumably his favorite wife, Ko Yong Hui.

And he has studied abroad, apparently, for at least a bit of his time, a bit of his formal education. Yet he’s clearly young and inexperienced and has none of the revolutionary credentials which are so important for legitimacy within the North Korean system that his grandfather had or that his father has today.

Kim Jong Il's medical condition

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, speaking of his father, what's known about his medical situation? And why was this son picked? I mean, I gather, just to show how strange some of this is, some of the information comes from the current leader's former chef, who wrote a memoir about his experience. That's how we learn things in this case, huh?

VICTOR CHA: Yes. A lot of the information is very anecdotal. There is not a lot of good on-the-ground intelligence with regard to the Kim family.

But what we do know is that this son was chosen in part because he was seen to be the one that had the most ability. He was seen to be the smartest, had the best judgment, and perhaps was the most politically ambitious.

The oldest son, Kim Jong Nam, was probably most well-known for his botched attempt to try to enter Japan on a fake passport and was detained at Narita airport. His reason for going to Japan, he said at the time, was he wanted to take his family to Disney World.

The second son, Kim Jong Chol, we don't know a lot about him, either, but the view I think -- the view that is attributed to Kim Jong Il is that his second son is considered too effeminate to take on the position of leader of the country. So that leaves us with the third and the youngest son.

Kim Jong Il's health itself appears to be in quite bad condition. As you had said, he suffered a stroke last year, and people thought that he had recovered, but when there were pictures of him at the Supreme People's Assembly, which is the major legislative gathering in North Korea, in April, he clearly looked like a man that was in very bad health.

And for that reason, I think the succession process has been substantially sped up, much more quickly than the last succession process, when Kim Jong Il took over for his father, Kim Il Sung.

Journalists arrested on border

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Lucie Morillon, let's talk about the case of these two journalists. What do we know about what they were working on and why they were picked up?

LUCIE MORILLON, Reporters Without Borders: Well, when Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested in March, we know that they were working at the border between China and North Korea on the very important story of women's trafficking in this area.

What we know is that they are just journalists. They are not criminals. They have done nothing wrong but their job as a journalist.

The circumstances of their arrest are still pretty murky. We don't know exactly if they were picked up on the Chinese side or the North Korean side, but, in any case, if they made a mistake, if they crossed, they didn't do it on purpose for some espionage reasons or whatever. They probably did it on a journalistic purpose.

And the border between the two countries is a river, so it's hard to tell exactly where it is. What we know is, again, they were doing their job as a journalist, and now they have been held for weeks and weeks. And tonight they are going to start this trial. We hope that it's going to be a time for the North Korean authorities to let them go, to release these reporters.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do we know even at this point what they've been charged with and what kind of punishment they might face?

LUCIE MORILLON: They have been charged with illegally entering the country and also engaging in hostile acts. We don't have many more details about what kind of hostile acts they refer to, but they risk up to 10 years in a labor camp.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in terms of efforts to help them, the families were on television a few days ago. What's known about how much, if anything, anybody can do at this point, either the U.S. government or the company they work for or their families?

LUCIE MORILLON: Well, their families have come public after they received a phone call from the two women a few days ago. And what Lisa Ling said was that her sister was very clear that, if she were to be released, it would be if the two countries, the United States and North Korea, were able to talk to each other.

So I think right now what we need is really more communication between the two states. And we also need to be very careful and separate this issue of these two women in jail from what's happening regarding the nuclear dispute.

Events tied to nuclear tests?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, OK, that brings us back -- let me bring you back, Victor Cha, on that subject, because there's some thinking, I guess, that these developments, both succession and perhaps even the journalists' case, are tied to the recent nuclear tests. Explain that thinking.

VICTOR CHA: Well, I think there is some connection that one could draw between the internal leadership transition and the provocative behavior we've seen in terms of the nuclear tests and the missile tests.

When you have a dictatorship like this where the leader starts to get sick, that often means that, in a transition process, the hard-liners are going to rise to power and that's going to be externalized in terms of more belligerent foreign policy behavior. It's not going to be externalized in terms of more conciliatory behavior.

So I think there is a link there, even though another very plausible reason for why the North is doing this is they want to advance their ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons program. That's clearly another reason.

With regard to the two reporters, I don't think that the leadership transition is directly related to this event, but the timing of this particular incident with the two reporters clearly is far from ideal, because right now, when there's a leadership transition going inside of North Korea, there's nobody that's going to advocate more conciliatory behavior even on an unrelated incident like the case of these two reporters.

But I think -- as you said, I think the U.S. government, the Obama administration, has been working very hard behind the scenes to try to find a resolution to this once they are sentenced.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Lucie Morillon, no matter what the direct connection, they inevitably -- these two journalists inevitably become pawns in a big political contest here.

LUCIE MORILLON: Yes, well, they are being used as bargaining chips in the situation, and we want to explain again that they are reporters. They have nothing to do -- they don't represent the United States and so on.

Some say that since they were able to give a call a few days ago, it may also be a good sign of hope that maybe North Korea could use this to reach a hand to the United States. It's a very unpredictable regime; it's very hard to tell. And we're really afraid for these women.

We just hope -- we call upon the North Korean authorities to show mercy and do like the Iranian authorities did in releasing Roxana Saberi a few days ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, I was wondering -- I mean, it's very unpredictable, but is there any particular precedent with the North Korean government and journalists to help us know what kind of bargaining chip they might end up making this?

LUCIE MORILLON: It's very rare for reporters to get visas to go in North Korea, and there are no real journalists in the country. We had journalists sentenced to 12 years in labor camp for misspelling the name of an official.

So, obviously, they don't really know how to deal with reporters, and we don't really have a precedent that happened these past years. What we know is we had other Americans who had been arrested and released after a few weeks or a few months, so we hope that this is going to be the same here.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, before we go, we may know something tonight, but it may even be a few days, it sounds like?

LUCIE MORILLON: Absolutely. We have no idea when we're going to know exactly the verdict and what's next for these two women, but we really hope that they're going to let them go.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Lucie Morillon, Victor Cha, thank you both very much for helping us sort this out.