Future Uncertain For Reclusive North Korea

The death of North Korea's Kim Jong Il leaves many open questions about the secretive country's future. Former Ambassador Christopher Hill and North Korea experts Hazel Smith and Alexander Monsourov discuss how Kim's death may affect the country's relationship with the international community.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Little may change in North Korea following the death of Kim Jong-il, but we don't know much about the power structure in Pyongyang, and a change of leadership in a ruthless and isolated and nuclear-armed dictatorship represents a moment of danger.

Last year, Kim Jong-il named his son as next in line. He would be the third member of the family to rule. But at the same time, he appointed his brother-in-law to important leadership posts, and the best guess was that the older man would serve as a sort of regent while the 20-something Kim Jong-un grew into the job.

Now that the day has arrived, many worry about a power struggle or a military demonstration of some sort. Many worry that we just don't know. If you have questions about the future in North Korea, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Chad Harbach, the author of the bestselling book "The Art of Fielding." But first, what's next in North Korea? We begin with Christopher Hill, whose long diplomatic career includes a four-year stint as undersecretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs and as U.S. representative to the six-party talks with North Korea. He's currently dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and joins us from member station KUVO in Denver. Ambassador Hill, nice to have you back.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Great to be here.

CONAN: Do we really know so little about North Korea?

HILL: Well, I think we know very little about Kim Jong-un. I mean, this is - we knew he was one of the sons, of course, but when he was brought forward as the heir apparent, that was I think quite a development. And in contrast to his father, who had some 20 years as, you know, preparing for the job, Kim Jong-un has had barely a year.

So it's not just that we don't know him, but the North Koreans don't know him.

CONAN: And you recently wrote that the past 18 months, two years, have seen some of North Korea's most outrageous misbehaviors. This is during the period of transition. Any idea if it's related?

HILL: Well, I don't know if it's related, but I can say that we - ever since the summer of 2008, when Kim Jong-il became Kim Jong very ill, we've perceived a kind of shift to this very hard-line military, and, you know, Kim Jong-il made this kind of policy of military first, which was more a - you know, more his understanding that the military is going to be a more important factor in that country.

And I think that's really continued. So I don't think there are too many breaks being provided by civilian leadership right now, and it's going to be, I think, very interesting to see how this plays out in the weeks ahead.

CONAN: What did you make of the appointment of Mr. Jang, who is the brother-in-law of the late Kim Jong-il and has a position, seems to be in a position where he could either mentor or rival the apparent new leader?

HILL: Well, I think to some extent it's going to be both. I think Jang Song-taek is someone who has been around leadership for some time, I mean very much in the inner circle. Some people have tried to cast him as a reformist. I really don't buy that. I mean, there are not too many people that we would know as reformists.

But he's clearly an adult with some experience, especially dealing with the military. So his job is to try to groom this guy and kind of keep this Kim cult going because I think we're going to see a kind of junta/cult in that country, provided they can keep, you know, the people who have a vested in the system, and I would include Jang Song-taek in that, are able to give the younger Kim, the Kim Jong-un, the stature he needs to somehow govern.

CONAN: Because the dynasty is in some ways a direct claim to legitimacy for the regime in North Korea?

HILL: Well, that's what makes this uncharted waters not only for us but for the North Koreans. I mean, frankly, you don't have really much to understand from this looking at North Korean history. You probably have to go to medieval European history to understand the regency and this sort of succession issue.

But clearly, clearly there are a lot of people, especially in Pyongyang, who benefit greatly from this system that they've constructed, this kind of mafia/cult-type system around the Kim family. So there's a lot of desire to kind of keep him going, and the question is can they pull it off.

CONAN: The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said today: I don't think we have any additional concerns beyond the ones we've long had with North Korea's approach to nuclear issues. We'll continue to press them to meet their international obligations. We have no new concerns as a result of this event.

Obviously people will watch very carefully, but there doesn't seem to be anything alarming going on.

HILL: Well, I certainly take that point, but I think it's a wise decision that the South Koreans put their military on heightened alert. I mean, the fact of the matter is we don't really know. We don't know whether there would be some gesture to show that he's a tough guy and in charge.

You know, North Korean leaders don't ingratiate themselves within North Korea by being conciliatory to the outside world. Rather, they show that they're tough and they're defending North Korea's, as they put it, their unique system.

So I think it's prudent to be very careful, but I would agree with the overall issue, which is that we have a lot of problems with North Korea, and I don't think they've grown as a result of Kim Jong-un.

CONAN: Joining us here in Studio 3A is Alexander Monsourov, who lived and worked for several years in North Korea, now a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Nice of you to come in today.

ALEXANDER MONSOUROV: Yes, hi, Neal.

CONAN: And from your experience living and working in Pyongyang, how are people going to take this? How is this going to work out?

MONSOUROV: It's a tragedy, and, you know, we have a similar experience back 17 years ago, in 1994, when the father of Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-sung, passed away, and you know, the country pretty much was shut down for the following three years. It went into a coma, if you wish, disengaging from the rest of the world - with a few exceptions, and these were important exceptions, including the negotiations with the United States.

The country, the people, you know, were very emotional. The emotions came from the heart. Today, just looking at the initial images, although we can observe, you know, wailing and a lot of tears, but what's interesting is that beyond the people who give interviews and who are supposed to cry very hard and wail, it's not easy to see those people who would, at least in the initial, in the first day, really wail or that the emotion really comes from the heart.

So that probably can be explained either by the state of shock, which everybody, which everybody still has, or the fact that the - kind of the personal attachment which the North Korean people felt to the great leader, you know, Kim Il-sung, was again very personal, very emotional, and it's somewhat different from the way they feel about Kim Jong-il.

CONAN: The Dear Leader.

MONSOUROV: Yeah, the Dear Leader, and as a result, again, I'm sure the party organizations will whip up the necessary level of emotion, and we'll see it on display in the next few days, but how sincere that is, it remains to be seen.

CONAN: I was just asking about that. You called it a tragedy. Few, it would seem, would shed any tears for Kim Jong-il.

MONSOUROV: Again, that's the official characterization of this event. Again, North Korean people in the past two decades suffered quite a lot, and a lot of, you know, hundreds of thousands of people passed away in the famine in the '90s and in the (unintelligible) march, which followed. Again, many, many people left the country, fled...

CONAN: If they could.

MONSOUROV: Yes, if they could, managed - if they could manage to cross the border to South Korea. Some people perished in, you know, in exile and in, you know, in various political camps. So...

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Leanne's(ph) on the line from Oklahoma City.

LEANNE: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

LEANNE: I have one small comment and then a question. The comment is that I was really surprised that a friend of mine, who's a Christian pastor in South Korea, found out that Kim Jong-il was dead via my Facebook page, a day earlier than it was, I guess, released on the news there. I thought that was kind of odd.

But the question I have is that in the past the North Koreans have threatened to shoot down a large Christmas tree there at the border. I wanted to know if you thought that they may go on and go ahead with that just to prove that they are still in power and maybe to show the new leader's power. And I'd like to take my question off the air, please.

CONAN: All right, Leanne, thanks for the call. Christopher Hill, there are - we become accustomed to very bellicose statements out of Pyongyang.

HILL: Well, indeed. I mean, that's one of the big questions, whether they're going to show that they're kind of in charge, and things are moving ahead and show it by some outrageous provocation. I suppose shooting a Christmas tree would fit that bill. But I kind of doubt they're going to create a DMZ-type incident.

They may well try, but I suspect they're going to really focus internally on what they need to do to make this a smooth transaction. Obviously, Kim Jong-il was not very popular, much less so than his father, and so one of the things that's kind of working in Kim Jong-un's favor is he bears this kind of physical resemblance to his grandfather, and he sort of reminds people of his grandfather, not that that was any kind of heyday.

But it was before the sort of kleptocracy took over in the last 20 years, where North Korea has these very well-fed people in Pyongyang, and everyone else is pretty much at subsistence.

CONAN: And Alexander Monsourov, briefly?

MONSOUROV: Yeah, a couple of thoughts on the Facebook story. In the past couple of months there have been - you know, the Internet has been flooded with rumors and innuendos about Kim Jong-il's death. I mean he was buried so many times, assassinated and - allegedly. So it's no wonder that that particular - you know, the person who posted that particular entry just got lucky, and it's just pure coincidence.

(Unintelligible) on the Christmas tree, I think the last thing the North Korea regime right now needs is an escalation of tension in the external environment. So I would submit to you that they'll do everything in their power to keep things quiet down there in the immediate surroundings, and I do not expect any provocation in the immediate future, originated in North Korea.

CONAN: We're talking about what new leadership will mean for North Korea. If you've got questions about that country's future, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. More in a minute. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Under the late dictator Kim Jong-il's leadership, North Korea announced its first atomic bomb and endured severe famines. And then, as then-Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld pointed out years ago, Kim Jong-il's legacy is also one of darkness.

If you look at a picture from the sky of the Korean peninsula at night, he said South Korea is filled with lights and energy and vitality and a booming economy; North Korea is dark. We're talking about what's next in North Korea. Our guests are Ambassador Christopher Hill, and joining us also is Alexander Monsourov, a visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

If you have questions about the future in North Korea, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us now by phone from London is Hazel Smith, professor of security and resilience at Cranfield University in England, editor and author of books on North Korea, including "Hungry for Peace: International Security, Humanitarian Assistance and Social Change in North Korea." Nice of you to be with us.

HAZEL SMITH: Good evening.

CONAN: And you were there most recently, I guess, in May and wrote that it was less dark than before.

SMITH: In Pyongyang, there was some superficial improvement in terms of increased electricity, but I don't believe this reflects what's happening in the rest of the country. And it is really very superficial considering that the economy is still going along at a very low rate indeed. You can see at the same time extreme poverty, as there has been for many years, even in Pyongyang.

And there's a lot of house building going on, but it looks as if it's all being self-built. It looks like it's going to fall down as soon as it gets up because there's no technology being used. There's only the most primitive homemade materials being used.

So although there are some signs of some low-level investment, there are often many signs of continuing economic degradation.

CONAN: You're the author - the title of your article was "Don't Look Forward to a Pyongyang Spring." Would a change in leadership give you greater hope that there could be an opening?

SMITH: Certainly not at this time, not in the short term. And that's when I was in Pyongyang and in North Korea right now, it's (unintelligible) minus 14 degrees centigrade, which is very, very cold indeed. And there is an absence of fuel and heating and continuing food shortages, which affect everybody in the country.

And when you're that cold, and you don't have heating, you don't have electricity at night, and you don't have enough fuel to keep your family warm and healthy, and you have to buy (unintelligible) medicines, and you don't have enough money for medicine, the last thing on your mind is thinking about political insurrection.

In fact, what we know is that revolutions have always been raised not by hungry people but by people who have got a little bit of stake in the system and want to change it.

CONAN: Hazel Smith, we have to apologize, the quality of the phone line from London is betraying us. I'm afraid we're going to have to say thank you, and good evening. We appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.

SMITH: Thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: Good night. And I wanted to raise that point, Ambassador Hill. Kim Jong-il's death, writes Samuel from St. Francisville, Louisiana - Kim Jong-il's death and the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s, an equal percentage of civilians and soldiers starved to death. When the soldiers are not properly fed, that's an almost inevitable recipe for coup d'etat. Why do you believe North Korea is a significant exception to that rule?

HILL: Well, first of all, I think they've tended to take care of their soldiers maybe better than some of the anecdotal evidence suggests. Certainly when you see North Korean soldiers, they're much smaller and lighter weight than their South Korea counterparts. But I wouldn't say that North Korean units are starving.

And I think Hazel has a very good point that when people are starving, they're not coup plotting and things like that. So I'm not sure that a scenario where the situation gets worse and worse is necessarily better from the point of view of political change.

I'd make one other point, too, which is when you go through Chinese history through the centuries, you see lots of peasant rebellions. When you look in North Korean or in Korean history, you see much fewer of those kinds of grassroots opposition.

So it is kind of a discouraging picture, but that said, there's an awful lot of combustible material out there, and people are living poorly. No one can really be a total supporter of this regime. So I am of the view that North Korea will certainly not last forever. The question is, what is the spark that would set off a change?

CONAN: Well, could there be a palace coup? We were talking earlier about Mr. Jang, the mentor/regent/rival, depending on your definition. Andrei Monsourov, do you think that might prompt a change?

MONSOUROV: Alexander.

CONAN: Excuse me.

MONSOUROV: That's fine. If you look at what's going on right now, it looks like the regime is executing pre-arranged continuative governance plan and executing it in a fairly methodical way. At the same time, the transition definitely is not going to be without conflict, and the number one goal of the great successor, that's new Kim Jong-un's title, will be to clear, to clear the political space from his potential opponents and rivals.

To begin with, in order to consolidate all of the levels of power in his hands, and the number one rival in that list, believe it or not, is his uncle Jang Song-taek. As long as Jang Song-taek's shadow is kind of hanging over his head, his hands will be tied.

And it's interesting that Kim Jong-il, who initially kind of wanted Jang Song-taek to be part of that successor support group, the front line of defense, you know, the elder revolutionaries, who would back Kim Jong-un in the initial transition years, since September 2010, he has begun a slow shift away from that initial group of successor supporters, including Jang Song-taek, trying to - marginalizing them, downgrading them, pushing them aside and bringing to the front a very different group of people, who have very few family ties but at the same time who control the key levers of power in North Korea.

So I expect as the number one priority, what Kim Jong-un will do, he'll cut off all the side branches of the family, meaning all his brothers, uncles, and, you know, other relatives, even including his aunt and her husband Jang Sung-taek, because they constitute the primary threat at this point to his consolidation of power.

CONAN: Sounding more and more medieval all the time. Let's see if we can go next to Pat, Pat with us from Elkhart, Indiana.

PAT: Yes, I was just curious, North Korea has been notoriously erratic, unpredictable. And I'm just wondering if Kim Jong-il was the main source of that, if Hill feels that or the same people are still around being very unpredictable.

CONAN: Ambassador Hill, North Korea seemed erratic to those of us on the outside. Maybe those things made sense in terms of internal politics.

HILL: That's a very good point. What's erratic to us makes perfect sense internally. But I agree with the questioner. I think there was a sort of added element or increment of weirdness as a result of this odd figure, Kim Jong-il, who - you know, I once sat around my dining table in South Korea, and I asked a group of South Koreans what would Kim Jong-il had been, had he been born a South Korean, not a North Korean.

And there were a lot of different ideas, you know, maybe a bus driver, maybe this or that. And the locus of opinion was some kind of person in the theatrical arts. So I think this is a guy who did have a kind of sense of theater, and I think that's kind of contributed to the bizarreness of the place. But I think your point is very well-taken, that internally there is a method to this madness.

CONAN: Do we underestimate him, Alexander Monsourov?

MONSOUROV: I - you know, I beg to disagree with the position that Kim Jong-il was an erratic and irrational person. He was pretty rational, long-term strategic thinker who basically had the goal of building his country into a nuclear power, equipped with - armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles.

And, you know, these programs - those two programs, they were put in action, and depending on the condition of the research, the development, their production, you know, whether they - when they needed to test, they tested. When they needed time to work on those programs, they gave - he gave green light to his negotiators to engage people like Ambassador Hill to buy time so that they would have extra two, three more years to advance the program, to get where they wanted it to go.

And all this, you know, seeming oscillation between negotiations and provocations, in reality it was designed to achieve one goal: to make North Korea, to transform North Korea into a nuclear power armed with intercontinental missiles, which can stand on its own feet without relying on mainly unreliable allies.

So I think in that sense he was very rational and very determined and purposeful in what he was doing.

CONAN: Ambassador Hill?

HILL: I would agree with that. I mean, I think he did have a concept of the country, which was to develop a sort of military deterrence, such that no one would ever mess with him. I mean the problem we had back in the beginning of the Bush second term was the fact that when you looked at polling data in South Korea, a lot of South Koreans were blaming the U.S. for the impasse that somehow we were failing to negotiate, failing to enter into dialogue, bullying this hapless little country, North Korea.

I don't think we have that problem anymore. And for that reason, I think the Obama administration is very correct not to be rushing into talks, especially for talks' sake, and they need to see the North Koreans do something serious on the table. But I would agree that Kim Jong Il had a real concept of military strength for his country. At the same time, you know, let's not, you know, kind of come to the conclusion that he is some wise leader. I mean, he led that country down a path of ruin, and that's why many North Koreans really had less faith in him than they did in Kim Il Song, who at least at a time, you know, you could see steel production rising and other things going up. I mean, this has been a pretty ruinous time for North Korea.

CONAN: The attitudes in South Korea, you mentioned, had changed particularly after the sinking of the patrol craft that cost so many South Koreans their lives, the shelling of an island. Nevertheless, the situation in North Korea is said to be very close to starvation, mass starvation again. United States is supposed to be on the cusp of an agreement to provide food aid. Do you suspect that that's now off the table?

HILL: I would hope not. I think the main reason for food aid is to - is calorie intake of a population and then look at it in comparison to other areas and whether we can monitor it. Now, if the new North Korean authorities won't let any monitoring, then it is off the table. But I don't think we should be mixing too much the issue of feeding starving children with nuclear negotiations.

CONAN: Alexander Monsourov, you're here in the studio. I can see you shaking your head.

MONSOUROV: You know, my assessment of the overall economic situation is slightly different. I actually believe that the economic situation is improving, you know, within the boundaries, of course, of the North Korean life. They had a better harvest last year. Yes, the food is still an issue, but there is no starvation in the country. It's question of accessibility of food because the food now is traded on the markets after the collapse of the PDS, so it's the access to food rather than the availability of the agricultural - the size of the agricultural output and the availability of food.

Again, construction sector is growing, building, you know, roads, bridges, infrastructure. You go to - you fly to Pyongyang airport, I mean, they're renovating Pyongyang airport. You know, the starvation - there are poor kids with hungry in North Korea, but they're no different than poor kids with hunger in so many countries around the world, so we cannot say that's because of that particular - the nature of that particular regime. Yeah, I feel that we don't have to give them any food aid at this point because it will not really address the issue of the food distribution. Instead, it will help the government to beef up its stockpiles on the eve of, you know, the celebrations which they plan for the next year, for the next April, the 100th anniversary, which most likely will be rescheduled or toned down. And I'm not sure whether they will indeed reach the required audience.

CONAN: Hundredth anniversary of Kim Il Song, the founder of the dynasty. We're talking with Alexander Monsourov and with former Ambassador Christopher Hill about North Korea. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can go next to Jessica. Jessica with us from Falmouth, Maine.

JESSICA: Falmouth, Maine, yes. Hi. How are you, gentlemen?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

MONSOUROV: How are you doing?

JESSICA: Good. I have a question in regards to the refugee crisis. I know that the United States, in 2004 enacted the North Korean Human Rights Act. And in that time and in the past six years, till 2010, we've only seen nine successful applications of North Koreans getting asylum to the United States. In the wake of Kim Jong Il's death, do we think that number nine of asylum applications is going to increase or the United States will add more wording to the NK (technical difficulties) Act that will allow former refugees to make their way to the United States rather than allowing them to stay in China or South Korea?

CONAN: Christopher Hill?

HILL: I don't think you'll see an uptick in numbers due to Kim Jong Il's death. I mean, it could - you could see an uptick due to economic or other factors that ultimately are caused by the transition. But I don't think you'll see an uptick on that. I think there was a problem, especially a problem with South Korea when the U.S. was talking so much about refugees and then not accepting any refugees. And I think the South Koreans were kind of offended by the fact that we went ahead and passed this legislation and talked about the, you know, desire to see more refugees get placed out of North Korea and then did nothing ourselves. So I think it was a concept of sort of burden sharing that bothered the South Koreans. I didn't realize it was still standing at the figure of nine, and I would hope that does go up.

CONAN: We just have a couple of minutes left, Ambassador Hill. North Korea's most important neighbor and ally, such as it is, is China. Their interest here would seem to be, please, no change.

HILL: Yes, that - and that is kind of where they've been for quite a while. China has also got a lot of internal issues, and internal issues are tough enough without trying to get some major change in Chinese policy. And for that reason they tend to say the same thing over and over again. I do believe, however, this is a time for the U.S. to be in close contact with the Chinese. We obviously need to be in close contact them about any resumption of the six-party talks because I think it's kind of the last chance of the six-party talks. If they resume and if they don't get anywhere, I just can't see it ever happening again. So I'd be very careful about just resuming it willy-nilly.

So I think we need to be very - in close touch and maybe even sync with the Chinese on that. Secondly, with the possibility of troop movements and other things during this transition, we need to really be using the - whatever hotlines we have with China to make sure that we understand - everyone understands what's going on.

CONAN: Christopher Hill, the former ambassador to South Korea, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and served as chief negotiator for the United States with North Korea, 2005 to 2009. Thanks very much for your time.

HILL: Thank you.

CONAN: Christopher Hill, now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. We'd also like to thank Alexander Mansourov, visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, who lived in North Korea for three years. He joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for your time today.

MONSOUROV: Thank you very much.

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