Pyongyang Stages Dramatic Funeral For Kim Jong Il

For analysis of the political dynamics at play during the funeral of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Steve Inskeep talks to Stephen Bosworth, Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. From 2009 until October 2011 he was the U.S. Special Envoy to North Korea.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Much to follow up on there, so let's talk now with Stephen Bosworth, who recently served as special U.S. envoy to North Korea. The image of the black limousine was pretty memorable going down the street in Pyongyang with a giant photo - a gigantic photo of Kim Jong Il on the rooftop. That was one of the memorable images we saw of this funeral. Are their images that stick in your mind from watching the coverage?

STEPHEN BOSWORTH: Well, I think that's the primary one. That plus the third son, Kim Jong Un, strolling along beside the limousine with his hand on the fender with a senior general walking on the other side of the limousine. This is clearly an effort to establish a direct lineage between Kim Jong Il and his son. And as has been pointed out in some of your commentary, giving this succession legitimacy is the major objective of the what we've been seeing out of Pyongyang over the last few days.

INSKEEP: And just to be clear; from all the signs that you try to read, as experts try to read from the outside, does it appear that that is everyone's objective who is in a leadership position in North Korea? There's no doubt that the military is uniting behind the third son.

BOSWORTH: Well, I don't see any doubt, any reason for doubt at the moment. Although, obviously we won't know exactly what they're talking to each other about or what some of them are thinking. But they are clearly in situation in which if they don't hang together, as was said in our own history, they each risk hanging separately.

INSKEEP: So, this is not - I mean this is a cult of personality obviously. But what becomes clear from Anthony Kuhn's report is that there is an elite, a group of people who have benefited from this continuous rule. And do they seem to have an interest in it continuing.

BOSWORTH: Well, they do indeed. You know, the size of that elite is subject to some difference of view. But it's probably a few thousand people may be even more. But they clearly have an interest, they think at least, in the initial phase of this succession in making sure that Kim Jong Un takes on the mantle.

INSKEEP: So, is a stable transition to another dictator the best that the world can hope for in this situation?

BOSWORTH: Well, unfortunately it may be, at least in the foreseeable future, the best that we can hope for. The prospects - any prospects for instability in North Korea is very worrying. Both because we don't know how that will play out and also, of course, because North Korea is a state with at least the ability to claim, with credibility, that it has nuclear weapons, but also conventional arms that make it a significant threat within the region particularly to its neighbor in the south, South Korea.

INSKEEP: What do you think about Kim Jong Un, from what little is known about him, as a custodian of those nuclear weapons as a man who, at least in theory, would have a finger on the button should he need to press it?

BOSWORTH: Well, the one thing that gives me comfort is my assessment that in all likelihood that the people who are going to be exercising collective decision-making there have much more experience than does Kim Jong Un. He is sort of the face of the regime.

But I frankly have difficulty accepting that senior generals, in their 50s and 60s, and senior party leaders are going to defer to him the way that they at least seemed to defer to his father. Certainly not as much as the generals of earlier generations deferred to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

INSKEEP: So, less and less power as we heard in Anthony Kuhn's report for each dictator as we go along here.

BOSWORTH: That's more and more of what I would call a collective leadership.

INSKEEP: In just a couple of seconds, can they continue to keep their people down even if starvation continues in some parts of South Korea - North Korea?

BOSWORTH: Well, that of course is the great tragedy of North Korea, what happens to the people there. You know, so far we see no evidence of any significant movement, popular movement, uprising, et cetera.

INSKEEP: OK.

BOSWORTH: There's no question however that the people now know more about how deprived they really are than 10 years ago.

INSKEEP: OK, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, thanks very much.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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