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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Reliable information about North Korea is very difficult to come by. Much of what's known is gleaned from leaks or hearsay. The health condition of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il is a closely kept secret, but there have been whispers that he is suffering from pancreatic cancer and may be dying. The line of succession is also the subject of world speculation. Experts can offer only educated guesses on who will be the next leader of North Korea. Among them is Kenneth Gause, director of the Foreign Leadership Studies Program at CNA, a research center for the federal government in Alexandria, Virginia, but he's in our Washington studio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. KENNETH GAUSE (Director, Foreign Leadership Studies Program, CNA): Thank you.

HANSEN: Who's thought to be at the top of the list for succession and why?

Mr. GAUSE: Well, in January of this year, reports started to come out of South Korea, and also Chinese sources that started to point toward the third son, Kim Jong Un, as being the likely successor to his father, Kim Jong Il. A lot of the key players within the succession struggle are not completely known. We do know about Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, as well as some other figures. And it is not even clear whether there is a power struggle going on. There is speculation about it, but all we have right now are guesses.

HANSEN: So, do you think it's a given that maybe whoever becomes the anointed successor will actually take over, or is there a possibility that someone else could seize power?

Mr. GAUSE: Well, there are various scenarios that Pyongyang watchers are speculating about, about how the transfer of power will take place. The most talked about scenario these days is the dynastic succession from the father to the son. We know that Kim Jong Un, or we speculate at least, he's only 26 years old, we believe, and probably will have to rely upon a collective leadership in which to come to power.

Since January, a collective leadership seems to be coalescing within North Korea and that is becoming what looks to be the foundation for the succession and transfer of power. At the center of this is Jang Song-thaek, who is the brother-in-law of Kim Jong Il. Many people believe that Jang Song-thaek is the one of the primary supporters of the third son, but, again, that's only speculation and rumor.

So you could have a dynastic succession where you have a successor who, for most intents and purposes, will be mainly a figurehead supported by a collective leadership. The problem with that is North Korea does not have a history of collective leadership and there are many individuals who we believe are in this collective leadership that could become in competition with each other, and that could be, obviously, destabilizing to the regime.

HANSEN: Hmm. Of the main players, are any of them disposed to opening up relations with the international community? Or do you expect North Korea to remain isolated?

Mr. GAUSE: Well, it's a difficult question. I mean, we've heard rumors coming from South Korean and Chinese sources that Jang Song-thaek is actually a very pragmatic person and may be inclined to embark on some sort of economic reforms. The problem with that is that the North Korean system is extremely brittle and if you try to conduct reform too rapidly within the system, it could cause the situation to deteriorate very quickly.

HANSEN: Kenneth Gause is director of the Foreign Leadership Studies Program at CAN, a research center for the federal government. Thank you for coming in.

Mr. GAUSE: Thank you.

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