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If Kim Jong-un Fails to Control Arsenal, North Korea Could Be ‘Truly Terrifying’

December 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Longtime North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died early Saturday after reportedly suffering a heart attack as he toured the country. Jeffrey Brown discusses Kim's reign and what his son, Kim Jong-un, will face as its new leader with Dartmouth College's Jennifer Lind and the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Victor Cha.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And, for more, we’re joined by Jennifer Lind, assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. She has written extensively on Korea and Asia. And Victor Cha, a former National Security Council official in the Bush administration official, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Jennifer Lind, I will start with you.

In this extremely opaque country, what do we know about Kim Jong-il and his legacy? And in what ways was he important in the end?

JENNIFER LIND, Dartmouth College: Well, he was important in many ways obviously to the lives of North Koreans and to the lives of people all over the world.

He wasn’t important in good ways. He was responsible for — as a young man, working under his father, he was said to be responsible for many terrorist acts, including the bombing of the KAL airliner in 1987. Recently, under his watch, he was responsible for the murder of the 48 sailors on the Cheonan.

Under his watch, North Korea experienced a terrible famine in which one million, perhaps two million North Koreans perished, starved to death. And to this day, as has been mentioned, there’s tremendous malnutrition in North Korea.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

JENNIFER LIND: Kim Jong-il also brought his country out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and acquired nuclear weapons. So this is a dismal legacy, indeed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Victor Cha, what would you add to that?

VICTOR CHA, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, three things.

The first is that — the cult of personality. All of this about the Great Leader, the Dear Leader, the next successor, all of these things are things that were actually created by Kim Jong-il when he was the understudy to his father. There was a competition among the family members about who would succeed Kim Il-Sung. And Kim Jong-il created this personality cult as a way to gain favor with his father. So, all that we see in terms of this today is thanks to him.

Secondly, and I think most importantly, we should remember that, I mean, North Korea truly did become a nuclear weapons state under Kim Jong-il. And that, in a North Korean narrative, is the great security contribution he’s made to the country.

The third — and one I don’t think people focus on, but is very important for the future of the country — is, in many ways, you could say that the legacy of Kim Jong-il was that he also created markets in North Korea, in the sense that he allowed the country to go bankrupt. He allowed the ration system to fail, and basically let the people fend for themselves. And they created markets.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, let me stay with you. When we now look at the — this moment we’re in, how big a moment is it? And how much do we know about who holds power, who decides where we go next?

VICTOR CHA: Yes.

I think, right now, it seems very calm, but I think this is actually a very, very big moment. Only a few days ago, if you had asked any analyst in North Korea what would be the most likely condition under which the North Korean regime could fall apart, I think the number-one answer would have been sudden death of Kim Jong-il.

And that’s where we are today. So, again, things are quiet now. They probably will remain quiet through until the memorial service at the end of the month. But I think all of us will be looking for signals to see whether they can carry off this transition. It’s going to be difficult.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Jennifer Lind, the chosen successor, Kim Jong-un, as we said, is said to be in his late 20s. But that’s about all we know about him, right? What more can you tell us?

JENNIFER LIND: We know very little about him, indeed.

I hear some speculation that he’s a fan of Western basketball. I hear he spent some time in Switzerland at school in Geneva. Some people have inferred from this that he’s somewhat of an internationalist. And the facts seem very tenuous and the inferences even more tenuous.

So, basically, we don’t know much about him at all. The one thing that I can say we probably can fairly conclude about him is that he wants to live. He wants to survive. And for that reason, he’s likely to continue to maintain the kind of government that his father, who also wanted to stay in power, kept up in North Korea, so the same level of repression in order to dissuade military coups or revolutions, and also the same level of isolation from the global economy.

JEFFREY BROWN: That means, Victor Cha, that he has to consolidate power with the military, I suppose, and with various factions there.

VICTOR CHA: Yes, he does. I mean, that’s the number-one mission for him, I think, is to try to co-opt as many of the military generals, both the older ones and the younger ones, and try to rule from that particular vantage point.

But there are real problems here. I mean, when Kim Jong-il, his father, took power in 1994, as your package said, I mean, he had basically been training for this for nearly two decades. And the young Kim, the junior Kim has maybe 15, 25 months under his belt.

JEFFREY BROWN: He was really unheard of before that, right?

VICTOR CHA: Complete — complete — completely unheard of.

And we know very little about his ability to consolidate power. We know nothing about his ideology. Every new North Korean leader, given the nature of the state, has to have an ideology. They have not cultivated that for him. So, it really is a blank slate and not a good situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you look at, of course, the big question out there, the outstanding question of nuclear proliferation — we will start with you, Victor Cha — what are the possibilities here? What are the fears and what are the, I guess, potential hopes?

VICTOR CHA: Yes.

Well, I mean, the hopes were before the death of Kim Jong-il that the United States and the members of the six parties were going to get back to a negotiation that would be preceded this week by announcements of a food aid package for North Korea and some more bilateral talks between the U.S. and the North Koreans to get back to the nuclear negotiations. That is all on hold now for the foreseeable future.

I think, for the United States, the big problem now is that, if we get news, any bits of information that there’s some problems in North Korea, we have a whole different nuclear problem on our hand now. And that is the potential for loose nuclear weapons, a country that is a nuclear weapons state that doesn’t have a leadership.

And that is a far more difficult problem than what was already a difficult problem when it came to nuclear weapons in North Korea.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jennifer Lind, how do you read the nuclear proliferation issue going forward?

JENNIFER LIND: I agree that the good outcome is not very good and the bad outcome is truly terrifying.

So, the good outcome from the standpoint of nuclear security is that Kim Jong-un successfully consolidates power and maintains control over the arsenal, and I think would be quite unlikely to relinquish that arsenal, given North Korea’s security problems that it finds itself in. So that’s the good news, which, again, from our standpoint, we’d like to see the denuclearization of North Korea, so that’s really not good news at all, in our view.

The bad news would be, as I said, terrifying. It would be if Kim Jong-un fails to consolidate power and we see a regime collapse or a civil war in North Korea, where we’re no longer sure who has authority and who actually has the nuclear weapons, and possibly seeing those nuclear weapons disappear into global black markets. So, that would be, of course, a truly horrifying scenario.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Victor Cha, what of the other main player here, China, the foremost ally of North Korea for all these years? Do you see — do they have a dominant role in deciding some of these questions we’re talking about?

VICTOR CHA: Well, I certainly think they have more of a role than any of the other parties could play, quite frankly.

They have eyes on the ground in North Korea. They have already said they’re going to support this leadership transition. So, in many ways, the ball is in China’s court in terms of how they’re going to convey information about what’s happening inside the regime and the extent to which they’re going to be willing to work with the United States and South Korea once we get some sort of news that things may not be going well inside — inside of the regime.

So, China thus far has been quite unwilling to have these sorts of discussions, but I think the current situation really calls for it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re saying — briefly, you’re saying that everyone is looking for hints in the days going forward.

VICTOR CHA: Yes. It’s all going to be about trying to read tea leaves. But the stakes are incredibly high.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Victor Cha and Jennifer Lind, thank you both very much.

JENNIFER LIND: Thank you.