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Download Kim Jong-il’s Death: Implications for North Korea’s Stability and U.S. Policy

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North Korea DPRK United States

North Korea represents one of the United States’ biggest foreign policy challenges due to its production and proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles, the threat of attacks against South Korea, its record of human rights abuses, and the possibility that its internal problems could destabilize Northeast Asia. The North Korean government’s December 19, 2011, announcement of the death of the country’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, has the potential to be a watershed moment in the history of the Korean Peninsula and the region.1 Ever since the death of his father, the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, in 1994, Kim Jong-il had sat at the apex of a highly centralized, brutal regime. During his tenure, his regime subjected North Korea’s people to profound impoverishment and massive food shortages, developed nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, and sold technology related to both programs abroad.

The effect of Kim Jong-il’s death on North Korea’s stability is uncertain. Many experts doubt that his anointed successor, his third son Kim Jong-un, will over the course of time be able to maintain effective control over his country due to his relative inexperience and the mounting internal and external pressures confronting North Korea. Yet, the North Korean regime under the elder Kim proved to be remarkably resilient, and many of the forces that held it together will continue to operate even if the young Kim himself remains weak. A key to the Kim Jong-un regime’s stability will be its ability to continue obtaining and distributing funds, mostly from external sources. Of particular importance will be China’s willingness to provide commercial, financial, and other support for the regime. Over the years, China reportedly has resisted repeated U.S. and South Korean attempts to discuss North Korea contingency plans. It is unclear whether Kim Jong-il’s death will change this situation, though there have been calls to redouble outreach to Beijing. A possible opportunity for high-level dialogue could come in January 2012, when Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visits Washington, DC. Xi is widely expected to be chosen as China’s top leader over the coming year.

Very little is known about the inner workings of the North Korean elite, as evidenced by the U.S. and South Korean intelligence services apparent surprise at the announcement of Kim Jong-il’s death. Even less is known about Kim Jong-un, who is believed to be in his late 20s and to have attended primary school in Switzerland in the 1990s. Kim Jong-un was being groomed to be the successor since his father’s August 2008 stroke that put a spotlight on the succession question.

In the days after the announcement, U.S. and South Korean officials issued statements that expressed support for the North Korean people, hope that the new leadership will continue recent diplomatic initiatives with Washington and Seoul, and a desire for a smooth transition in Pyongyang. (For the text of these statements as well as a joint message from several Chinese state and communist party organs, see the Appendix. U.S. and South Korean influence over events in North Korea is widely believed to be limited. In the coming weeks, the Obama Administration will be confronted with a decision of whether to persist with two proposed new agreements that reportedly were in the process of being concluded with the Kim Jong-il government in mid-December: a resumption of U.S. food assistance, and in return, a reported agreement by North Korea to shut down key sites of its nuclear program and open them to international monitoring.

Members of Congress will have the opportunity to support or oppose these moves, as well as to propose new pressure and engagement tactics of their own.

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