North Korea Power Vacuum Ups Security Concerns

The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il has raised security concerns in the Korean peninsula and Asia in general. Linda Wertheimer talks to Stephen Bosworth, former U.S. special representative for North Korea and dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, about how dangerous the situation is on the Korean peninsula.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il raises security concerns on the Korean peninsula and in the region. Questions surround the leadership of his youngest son, who he named as his successor last year. The nation has a nuclear arsenal. Parts of the country are reportedly again facing starvation.

Stephen Bosworth served as the U.S. envoy to North Korea from 2009 until October of this year. He is also former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea and currently serves as dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Mr. Bosworth, thank you so much for joining us.

DR. STEPHEN BOSWORTH: My pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: Now, from a security standpoint, how dangerous you think the situation is on the Korean Peninsula because Kim is dead?

BOSWORTH: Well, I'm not sure it's that much more dangerous this morning than it was three days ago. But it clearly adds to the level of uncertainty and anxiety to have a transition of leadership in a country that is as impoverished as North Korea, and which has something in the way of a nuclear arsenal.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we're hearing reports today that North Korea has conducted a short-range missile test. Is that a coincidence? Is that something that they might do to sort of get the attention of the population while they're preparing for a transition?

BOSWORTH: Well, very little is coincidence in North Korea. But I think what it is, is a demonstration perhaps for their own population that they are still a strong, vibrant nation, as they would put it. It is also, I think, a warning in some sense to the rest of the world - including, particularly South Korea and the United States - that they still have - they are still in military power to be reckoned with. So don't trifle with us.

WERTHEIMER: What can you tell us about Kim Jong Un and how his succession might play out? He's young, he's still in his 20s.

BOSWORTH: Yes, and in truth there's not much that I can tell you about Kim Jong Un because we don't know much about him. We believe that he's spent a couple of years in a middle school in Switzerland when he was in his early teens. There is a rumor that he's passionate about basketball. But beyond that he has not been exposed to the outside world.

There are some reports that he may speak English; that he may also speak some German. But I would not expect that this is a person who has had much cosmopolitan experience to the outside world.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this young man will presumably have charge of North Korea's nuclear program, and the possibility that they might have weapons they could use in war.

BOSWORTH: Well, I think what we can expect to see is a ongoing evolution of the structure of leadership in North Korea. Under his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, there was a good deal of concentration of power in Kim Il Sung's hands. Under Kim Jong Il, he has clearly been the key person, but I think there's good evidence that he's had consulted relatively widely with other centers of power in North Korea, and make sure that everybody is on the same page.

I would think that with Kim Jong Un coming into office that he's going to be very attentive to the desires of the military, of the senior party officials and that he's not going to be in a position where he's going to unilaterally make important decisions. He will be however more than a figurehead. But I think he's going to be sharing power more in a way, greater than was the case with his father.

WERTHEIMER: Stephen Bosworth is dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and former U.S. envoy to North Korea.

Dean Bosworth, thank you very much.

BOSWORTH: My pleasure, thank you.

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WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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