MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. Efforts to stop North Korea's nuclear program may be unraveling. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency says North Korea has asked it to remove seals and cameras from the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, this just days after North Korea vowed to restart its nuclear program. It also follows reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had surgery for a stroke. There's widespread speculation that the reclusive leader is seriously ill.
NPR's Louisa Lim has been asking experts in South Korea how a transition of power in the north might play out and what it could mean for efforts at nuclear disarmament.
LOUISA LIM: Mass hysteria and grief convulsed North Korea after Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, passed away in 1994. Mourning was, of course, mandatory, but there was also public fear, fear that the leader who had protected them was gone and uncertainty about what might happen next. Some North Korea watchers believe the same response might greet the death of Kim Jong Il.
However, in the two weeks since worries about his health emerged, there have been no signs of anything unusual in North Korea. Paik Hak-soon from the Sejong Institute says this shows Kim is still at the driving wheel.
Mr. PAIK HAK-SOON (Director, Inter-Korean Relations Studies Program, Sejong Institute): He definitely appears to be in control, even though he might be at his hospital bed. If he has lost, you know, some capacity to communicate and control, we would have seen all kinds of indications, like dramatic upsurge of communications and even movement of troops of the North Korean army.
LIM: The scenario that most worries Pyongyang's neighbors is the political implosion of the country, causing tens of thousands of hungry refugees to pour over the borders. But in the event of Kim's sudden death, Edward Reed, the Korea representative for the Asia Foundation, doesn't believe that's likely.
Mr. EDWARD REED (Korea Representative, Asia Foundation): I don't think most people see an immediate period of chaos or unrest in North Korea during a transition from Kim Jong Il to a new kind of leadership group. But in the long run, we'd have to see how long that kind of arrangement would last and what pressures would emerge on it.
LIM: The army's position has been strengthened over the past decade by North Korea's military first policy, and now Pyongyang's nuclear weapons add a new, even more dangerous dimension to the situation. For five years, five countries, including China and the U.S., have tried to persuade Pyongyang to disable its nuclear program. Today's move, breaking IAEA seals on its reactor, is likely to be seen as a major step backwards.
Analysts in Seoul say such developments follow the same negotiating strategy as Pyongyang has used in the past. Cai Jian from Fudan University says even China, North Korea's closest ally, worries that any change in the power balance could jeopardize North Korea's nuclear disarmament.
Mr. JIAN CAI (Student, Fudan University): (Through Translator) Kim Jong Il is probably less hard-line than the military on the nuclear question. If he dies, or the military hard-liners seize power, the problem will be harder to solve.
LIM: Jin-wook Choi from the Korea Institute for National Unification believes Kim Jong Il's death could change the regional power balance.
Dr. CHOI JIN-WOOK (Director of North Korea Division; Korea Institute for National Unification): Definitely Chinese influence will increase because China has diplomatic relations. China has, you know, an embassy there. China shares the border. So China is the first country which can understand the situation and influence North Korean elites.
LIM: For the outside world, another danger is that whoever succeeds Kim Jong Il perceives themselves as facing external threats and stages a show of strength. Brian Myers from Dongseo University classes North Korea as a hard-line nationalist regime and says the biggest danger to any successor is looking weak.
Professor BRIAN MYERS (International Studies, Dongseo University): Whoever succeeds Kim Jong Il, whether it is a person or whether it is, for example, a group of generals or a group of Workers Party officials, they will need to show the people very quickly that they are in control of the country. And I think this perhaps may tempt them into some kind of provocative action, whether it's a military launch or something more serious.
LIM: And there's also the humanitarian situation. North Korea is facing its worst food shortage in a decade, but Il Dong Koh from the Korea Development Institute believes the need to gain support means economic reform is more likely in the post-Kim era.
Dr. IL DONG KOH (Senior Fellow and Economist, Korea Development Institute): This new political group has to earn their own reputation and legitimacy. And the only way for them to gain legitimacy might be to bring in some new breath in the economic activities, which means that higher possibility of taking some reformative measures in economic aspects.
LIM: The level of unknowns is such that one expert whose job is watching North Korea responded to one question by saying, sorry. I didn't bring my crystal ball. It's a measure of our ignorance of what's happening in reclusive North Korea that any predictions at all are seen as crystal ball gazing. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Seoul.
BLOCK: Tomorrow, Louisa reports on who might succeed Kim Jong Il in North Korea, and you can read about the man North Koreans call Dear Leader at npr.org.
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