Fear: North Korean Power Struggle Could Start War

The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has created uncertainty about the government that controls one of the most oppressive countries in the world. There are concerns of a brewing power struggle following Kim's death. Analysts say the U.S. and its allies have no detailed contingency plans if the situation there spins out of control.

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The unexpected death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has created uncertainty about the government that controls one of the most oppressive countries in the world. There are concerns of a possible power struggle in the wake of Kim's death. Obama administration officials are calling for a stable and peaceful transition of power in North Korea. But analysts say the U.S. and its allies have no detailed contingency plans if the situation there spins out of control.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: For decades, the U.S. has had to operate in the dark when it came to North Korea, receiving only occasional rays of information about the inner workings of the country's totalitarian government, its culture or its people. There was consensus that Kim Jong Il was arranging to hand over power to his son, Kim Jong Un - but not this quickly. The young man did not have time to burnish his credentials with North Korea's military or inner government circle.

Jim Walsh, with MIT's security studies program, says there are concerns about a power struggle. And he says that could lead to an accidental war in the region.

PROFESSOR JIM WALSH: Here's a leader. He's young. He's inexperienced. He has to win the support of the military. He has to send a strong signal of strength to his own domestic population and try to deter the enemies around him. And that's the sort of thing where, you know, someone just needs to screw up once and suddenly you can have a crisis that escalates beyond the control of leaders to reign it back in.

NORTHAM: The Obama administration was quick to reassure its allies, Japan and South Korea in particular, that's it's committed to maintaining stability in the region. North Korea has thousands of weapons pointing at Seoul. And the South Korean government of President Lee Myung-bak is taking a tougher line towards North Korea than his predecessors.

Michael Green, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the U.S. has been discussing North Korean regime change or collapse since Kim Jong Il took power in 1994.

DR. MICHAEL GREEN: We've been on and again and off again planning for this for 15-plus years. And I think discussions with South Korea have moved along pretty well, with China not very far at all and with Japan probably not far enough. And even though we have discussions and planning and so forth, we don't have a very detailed plan on exactly what we would do.

NORTHAM: Green says part of the problem is there are so many variables, so many different scenarios that could play out. And it's been hard to nail down what the regional countries would do in the event of a crisis - whether it be tens of thousands of refugees flooding across the border with China, or increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula leading to military action.

And then there's the question of North Korea's nuclear arsenal, will it be safe. White House spokesman Jay Carney says it's premature to start speculating.

JAY CARNEY: I don't think we have any additional concerns beyond the ones that we have long had with North Korea's approach to nuclear issues. And we will continue to press them to meet their international obligations.

NORTHAM: Ironically, the U.S. was about to decide whether to re-engage with North Korea using an aid package as a sweetener to move nuclear negotiations forward.

Kenneth Lieberthal, a Korean expert at the Brookings Institution, says Kim's death will likely postpone any progress on this. Lieberthal says first the country has to go through a period of mourning.

DR. KENNETH LIEVERTHAL: I think even after that, the nuclear issue is probably the most sensitive and I wouldn't be surprised if it were one of the most contentious in North Korea, in terms of how to handle negotiations with the United States and others. So I think it may be quite some time before the North is really willing to be at all creative and very responsive on nuclear-focused initiatives.

NORTHAM: Lieberthal says for now the Obama administration's options are limited: reassure the allies and try to engage with China, which he says has better intelligence on North Korea that anyone else.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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