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North Korea After Kim Jong-Il

Speakers: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy, Council on Foreign Relations, and Paul B. Stares, General John Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Anya Schmemann, Director, Communications and Marketing, Council on Foreign Relations
December 19, 2011, Washington D.C.
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR: I'd now like to turn the conference over to Ms. Anya Schmemann. Ma'am, please begin.

ANYA SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

Good afternoon, everyone. This is Anya Schmemann. I'm the director of communications at the Council on Foreign Relations, and I'm very pleased to be joined by two colleagues today for this breaking news call on succession in North Korea. I'm joined by senior fellow Scott Snyder and senior fellow Paul Stares. News broke late yesterday evening at around 10 p.m. that "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il had passed away, and now there is much speculation about what will happen next.

Scott Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of the book "China's Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics and Security."

Paul Stares is the General John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention and director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Thank you both for being here.

Scott, if we can turn to you first, if you can just tell us, what do we know at this point? What do we know about the death? What do we know about the heir apparent? And what are you hearing from the ground about likely scenarios for the transition?

SCOTT SNYDER: OK. Well, as everyone knows, yesterday evening around 10 p.m. here, around noon Korea time, the Korea Central News Agency anchor came on and announced that Kim Jong Il had died of a massive heart attack on his train. The death occurred actually Saturday morning at 8:35 a.m. Korea time, and so that means that the world was notified of his death a little bit more than 48 hours after the fact.

The North Koreans and Kim Jong Il had put in place a succession plan focused on his third son, Kim Jong Un. You know, the unveiling of that plan really came in September of last year at the Workers' Party Conference that was held, at which time we saw Kim Jong Un for the first time take the stage with his father. He was also awarded the title of "General" and made a vice chairman of the party military commission at that time.

He has been actively touring the country together with his father over the course of the past year -- kind of learning the ropes, I guess, by watching his father. This, of course, means that he's had, you know, two years to prepare for this succession, where his father had two decades, so this is a relatively rapid transition now that he is facing to leadership.

He is supported by, I think, a collective leadership process. I think part of that is revealed in the way in which the announcement was made and the way in which the funeral committee was put together and announced in relatively short order. We know that from September of 2010, his family -- several family members also took prominent roles in the party in various parts of the bureaucracy, I think in support of this process.

What we don't know is whether or not the process will go forward as Kim Jong Il had planned, in Kim Jong Il's absence. Kim Jong Il has been really the focal point for this system now for over 15 years. He has not been an institution builder. In fact, institutions in North Korea, with the exception of the military, have essentially atrophied over the course of the past 17 years. And so, you know, one of the challenges, I think, is how does this process go forward and consolidate itself, you know, both in the absence of strong institutions and also in the context of a situation where the new leader is in his 20s but he's dealing with, you know, other power-holders who have been around a lot longer than he has.

We'll have to wait and see how that process plays out over the course of the next weeks. I think things to watch include the actual funeral itself, scheduled for December 28th. In addition, historically, there has been a January 1st new year's address that the North Korean leadership has used to indicate its direction. Obviously, this will be the first new year's address, or editorial -- or we'll have to see what form it comes out in -- you know, providing, you know, direction in relatively short order following the funeral. And then, January 8th is Kim Jong Un's 28th birthday, and so we'll see how that particular day is honored in North Korea.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thanks. So an uncertain situation.

Paul, this is obviously being closely watched by North Korea's neighbors, in South Korea, Japan, China in particular. What have their reactions been so far, and what does this mean for U.S. policy toward North Korea and toward the region more broadly?

PAUL STARES: Yes, thanks, Anya.

Well, there's no indication that any of them got advance warning of -- or detected before we did the death of Kim Jong Il. It's possible that China may have been informed before the rest of the world was, since they issued a statement offering condolences to the family of Kim Jong Il and North Korea in general, so it's conceivable that they may have been tipped off a little earlier, before the rest of us.

Japan responded by the prime minister cancelling his scheduled appointments. He later issued a statement saying that they would be watchful of events, work closely with their U.S. and -- as well as South Korea, in terms of responding, and also review certain sort of contingency measures for this eventuality.

South Korea seems to have been taken by surprise by the announcement and, as far as I know, has yet to issue any formal statement about the death of Kim Jong Il, other than that we should be watchful of developments in North Korea.

As for the challenge this presents the United States, clearly we have to be mindful of what I would call the downside risks of the transition that's just started. It's possible that, as part of an effort to boost the legitimacy and credibility and general standing of Kim Jong Un, that further provocations of the type we saw before might be initiated, and we obviously should be very mindful of those risks. A possible missile test, even a nuclear test, all designed to burnish the leadership credentials as a strong person or leader for the country could be ensuing.

We should also be mindful that this leadership transition, as Scott mentioned, may not go smoothly. It may be contested, and that could have all kinds of external ramifications and spillover effects not just on South Korea, but the region generally. And so we obviously have to be very concerned about the possibility of this transition not going smoothly, though all indicators -- indications are that they've prepared for this, and at least in the short term things will go smoothly.

There are some potential upside opportunity that the death of Kim Jong Il presents itself. And so I think the U.S., in close coordination with its allies, should be considering how it can single -- signal the North Korean leadership of the possibilities of policy change in North Korea and potentially offering inducements for them to carry out certain changes in policy that we would welcome. Particularly here we're talking about nuclear reductions and denuclearization in general as well as a testing moratorium. I think we, again, should be probing to see whether the transition will bring about a potential change in North Korea's posture to the outside world.

But these are early days. So as you said, Anya, there's a lot of uncertainty at the moment about how this is going to play out.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you. And just for those who may have joined us late, this is a CFR breaking news media call with Scott Snyder and Paul Stares. I would note that we have a number of resources on our website, www.cfr.org. We'll be updating it throughout the day. There's a new blog post there by Sheila Smith on Japan's reaction, also the recent task force report on Korea chaired by Jack Pritchard and John Tilelli as well as a council special report on managing sudden change and a recent memorandum on contingencies for the Korean Peninsula. So again, do check back to www.cfr.org throughout the day for more. At this point, Operator, I think we can open it up to questions.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma'am. At this time we'll open the floor for questions. (Gives queueing instructions.)

OK, first question comes from Josh Rogin with Foreign Policy magazine.

SCHMEMANN: Hi.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks so much for doing the call. So it was well- reported this weekend that the administration was about to announce a huge package of food aid to North Korea, a deal that was worked out over several weeks in exchange for North Korea's promise to halt uranium enrichment and do a whole host of other things as a precursor to returning to six-party talks on their nuclear program. You know, I'm told today that that whole deal is now on hold. I'm wondering if you can talk about that. What did you think of the deal of the first place and the fact that it's now, you know, totally up in the air following the death of Kim Jong Il? Thank you.

SCHMEMANN: Scott, why don't you take that -- humanitarian aid and return to the talks.

SNYDER: Yeah, well, that's correct that our U.S. government envoy for human rights in North Korea, Robert King, had been talking with Ambassador Ri Gun this past week in Beijing about possible resumption of food assistance and discussing, you know, specific monitoring conditions related to delivery of assistance.

You know, the second part of this -- the Obama administration has attempted to separate the food issue from the nuclear issue, and so the second part of this is really the question about how the enriched uranium discussion might have unfolded.

And there had been rumors that Ambassador Davies might be meeting with the North Koreans within days, you know, to discuss that part of it.

You know, that uranium enrichment piece was the piece that was most difficult to address back in October when the U.S. and DPRK met in Geneva. And you know, this sort of event, I think, you know, does naturally place a pause on prospects for exploring that.

However, in 1994 we saw that the U.S. and DPRK did successfully engage in a negotiation process, even despite a leadership transition in North Korea. You know, the Agreed Framework was negotiated months after Kim Il Sung died.

I think that the question of -- the food assistance issue is an interesting one to think about as one thinks about what Paul was discussing earlier -- you know, the question of how to, you know, send positive signals of engagement to a new leadership. I think that there may be some, you know, value in considering, you know, going forward with food assistance in that context, as long as the delivery of food assistance meets the requirements that the administration had originally set in terms of, you know, monitoring, avoidance of diversion and primarily provision of what I would call sole-purpose assistance, especially nutritional assistance for nursing mothers and for infants.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thanks.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Tony Caven (sp) with CBS News.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Just logistics, almost, here: Mr. Snyder, in the beginning of your presentation, you talked about -- if I heard you correctly, you said that Kim Jong Il had essentially two years to do what took his father two decades. And I thought you'd said he was first named to this position in September 2010. What am I getting wrong here?

SNYDER: Well, I'm giving a little bit more time, because the rumors of Kim Jong Un's ascent to power extended back to 2009.

QUESTIONER: OK. But the date of the official ascension -- you did say 2010, correct? SNYDER: That's correct.

QUESTIONER: OK.

SNYDER: September of 2010 was the official, I guess, you know, public coming out and acknowledgment of Kim Jong Un as the likely successor to Kim Jong Il.

QUESTIONER: And the other thing I'd like to ask you while I've got you for a second is just given the significance -- apparently next year is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the grandfather, Kim Il Sung. Is that going to -- in the terms of the things you had mentioned before we should be looking for, are there celebrations planned around that that could or could not change, or could be something worth keeping an eye out on?

SNYDER: Well, you know, April 15th is Kim Il Sung's 100th birthday, if he were still alive. Of course he is still officially designated as DPRK's eternal president. But you know, that's going to be the key date.

Obviously Kim Jong Il's death casts a pall over that and it, I think, also colors, you know, North Korea's ambition -- self-described ambition to become a strong and prosperous state.

You know, clearly, in a transition period, you know, there may be pressures that, you know, further underscore the DPRK's incapacity to achieve that goal. We certainly saw, you know, something similar in '94, '95 period, where in fact North Korea experienced a famine in the context of a political transition.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

SCHMEMANN: Thanks.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Viola Gienger with Bloomberg News.

QUESTIONER: Yes. This is Viola again. Thank you for doing the call.

I had wanted to ask you about how -- how do you think this affects South Korea in terms of its ability to show restraint in the case of any sort of provocation from the North Koreans? Secretary -- Defense Secretary Gates and other U.S. officials have expressed concern about that in the past.

How do you see South Korea reacting? And some time has now passed since the last North Korean attack. Might they be more able to show the kind of restraint the U.S. is -- has been calling for?

And can you talk a little bit about the South Korean military's capacity -- capabilities? Last year, the transfer of wartime operational control was delayed from 2012 to 2015, and I wonder if you know anything about whether some of the improvements have been made in the South Korean military that the U.S. felt were necessary to prompt that delay.

SCHMEMANN: OK, Paul, why don't you take that --

STARES: OK.

SCHMEMANN: -- the likelihood of a provocative action and the response?

STARES: Well, as I mentioned, there is always the possibility that, to burnish the credentials, the credentials as a strong leader, that they may orchestrate further provocations against South Korea. There is some evidence that Kim Jong Un may have been involved at some level in the decision to attack the South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, as well as he may have also been involved in the shelling of the island in the West Sea. And so there is obviously concern that, as part of the transition process, that we may see provocations of this kind -- again, designed to enhance his leadership and image as a strong leader in North Korea.

In terms of how South Korea should respond, I don't think it changes too much. Their forces are clearly on high alert at the moment to anything of this kind, and will be for the foreseeable future. I don't think it will instill any sense of greater restraint on their part. They're obviously mindful that -- of the risks that retaliation may bring, and they've looked at this very closely in terms of how to respond to show that they are not deterred by potential provocations. And they've given a lot of thought to potential contingencies and how they would respond, particularly in terms of ensuring that it's swift and proportional and localized to the actual provocation. But they're very mindful of the risks of escalation, and I don't think that has changed too much as a result of what we've just heard.

QUESTIONER: And what about the capacities of the South Korean military in terms of --

STARES: Well, they've clearly --

QUESTIONER: -- (inaudible) -- especially ISR in terms of -- (inaudible).

STARES: Yes, they've clearly upgraded their intelligence and surveillance, reconnaissance capacity since the Cheonan. And this has been a high priority for them. And they've been also looking at potential military operations, too, in retaliation for any provocation. And they do have some capacity to doing that, whether by artillery or by air-delivered means. So the means is certainly there.

But they -- I don't want to sound like they're on a tripwire to respond. They are very conscious of the risks that's entailed, but at the same time, they just don't want to be entirely passive and thus encourage further provocations by North Korea.

SNYDER: Just to be a little bit more specific on that, you know, the South Korean media has reported South Korean interest in acquiring unmanned surveillance vehicles for surveillance purposes over North Korea, and also some progress in South Korea's development of, quote-unquote, "bunker buster" bombs which can be used to hit North Korean artillery sites.

One other aspect of this experience with the shelling last year I think that's important as we look at the operational control issue is that it provided, I think, some lessons regarding structural issues the South Korean military will need to be aware of as it considers jointnesses -- jointness as an essential component of its response and deterrence of North Korea, once it's in the lead.

SCHMEMANN: Thanks. We'll take another question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Paul Eckert with Reuters.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thank you, Scott and Paul, for doing this. I wanted to -- you touched on some of this, especially Scott, where you said that some sort of -- you know, after -- while they ponder the food aid, you know, some efforts at engagement might be wise, or something to that effect you said.

But I have noted on -- in doing the rounds of CNN that people like Victor Cha and Ambassador Chris Hill have both said it's probably not a good idea for Obama or somebody to express condolences. It could go the wrong way, et cetera. I wonder what you think the first U.S. gesture might and should be, and would we be talking about sending a Jimmy Carter or a Bill Richardson over to that state funeral -- assuming that North Korea's going to let in outsiders? They may well not. Thanks.

SCHMEMANN: Scott?

SNYDER: Yeah, I think it's already been reported that the North Koreans have decided not to open the ceremonies to foreign delegates.

I think that the issue of condolences is actually one of the very challenging ones that the U.S. government faces, but it's an even more serious and sensitive issue in South Korea. And in fact, South Korea did not issue a statement; the South Korean government did not issue a statement today regarding Kim Jong Il's passing. I think that it is very implausible that the U.S. government would end up following South Korea's lead on trying to deal with this, and as a way that, you know, is as coordinated as possible.

STARES: If I could just jump in, too. In terms of how the U.S. might conceivably respond, I think, as -- for the reasons Scott mentioned, there is sensitivity around expressing condolences. And I noted how Foreign Minister Rudd of Australia and Foreign Minister Hague of Great Britain issued statements. And without expressing condolences, they did acknowledge this is a difficult time in North Korea, but also expressed -- both of them in their own way expressed hope for change. And I think that would be one way in which the U.S. could, say, signal its willingness to engage in more productive discussions with North Korea on issues like denuclearization and missile tests and so on.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Ann Flaraty (ph) with Associated Press.

QUESTIONER: Hi, guys. Thanks for doing the call. My question, just to follow up on that, is how fast do you think the U.S. should move on any of this -- on deciding if it is going to express condolences inthe -- in the that way Paul -- you had -- just had said would be possible and -- or maybe addressing the food aid issue? Is there a danger in waiting too long and so you sort of miss your opportunity to try to re-engage with the new regime?

SNYDER: I think that, in part, depends on demand signals from the North Korean side, but -- and an assessment of exactly how serious the situation might be, you know, during this transition period. I think that the -- you know, if you're looking for an outside window, I would say that probably if we get into next year given the discussions that, you know, have already taken place on this, one might begin to think that the period of likely opportunity, in terms of responding, was starting to pass.

QUESTIONER: Well, my understanding is the Japanese government did offer condolences. And of course, the Chinese expressed deep condolences. And Obama has been closely in touch with the South Korean premier. Where do you -- where do you think -- what do you think the next step will be there?

STARES: Well, just to be clear, I think it was the chief Cabinet secretary, Fujimura, in Japan, that expressed condolences rather than the prime minister of Japan. As far as I can tell, I've seen no official statement out of the Kantei from the prime minister's office about condolences.

I think, in general, the U.S. will wish to defer to South Korea's leadership here. I certainly -- they don't want to get out ahead of South Korea in terms of any uncoordinated statements about this. There was a difference between the two countries in 1994. And Scott can correct me if I'm wrong, but South Korea did withhold condolences when Kim Il Sung died, though the U.S. did, I believe. And so there was some differences there. But I'm sure, given the leadup to the events this weekend, that the U.S. will certainly defer to how South Korea manages this.

SCHMEMANN: OK. Operator, if you could give a reminder about how to get in queue, and then we'll take our next question.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma'am. (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell with The Mitchell Report.

QUESTIONER: Thanks, and thanks to you all for doing this. I'm curious to know to what extent we might postulate what the Chinese are doing at the moment, A, whether they are in communication with the North Koreans and in what way or playing or what kind of role. And beyond that, what do we know about the players in North Korea who are -- who are guiding the ship at this point? Are there some specific individuals or specific sort of positions in the government? I mean, I'm just trying to get a sense of what might be going on and whether the North Koreans are reaching out or the Chinese reaching out to them.

SCHMEMANN: Thanks, Garry.

Paul, let's go to you on the question of China, and then Scott, if you could tell us about the mentors to Kim Jong Un.

STARES: Well, I think China is -- the first and foremost response is to show solidarity with North Korea. They do have a formal treaty, and obviously, we all know they have very close economic ties and political ties, particularly at the party level. And so they will be keen to show that they are the most supportive regional player here and that there's no sort of daylight here or any questioning of the transition process. So that would be their primary goal.

SCHMEMANN: OK, and Scott, my understanding is that Kim Jong Un -- Il's sister and husband may help this process along. What are you hearing?

SNYDER: Yes. In September of 2010 one of the features of the party conference, at least in my view, was the number of family members who were appointed to official posts. And the most notable of those was Kim Jong Il's sister, Kim Jong Un's aunt Kim Kyong-hui, who was also appointed to be a general along with Kim Jong Un in advance of that party conference. Her husband, Kim Jong Un's uncle, is Chang Song-taek. And Chang Song-taek has long been an actor in North Korea that has drawn attention from the outside. He led an economic delegation to South Korea almost a decade ago. He appeared to be a kind of reformer, then he lost his position, and then he returned back to power. And so his role is going to be interesting but a little bit complex because he hasn't been ranked as highly, for instance on the funeral committee or at the party conference, as one might expect given his role.

There are some critical military people: Kim Yong-Chun, Chang Jong-ho (ph). There's also others who have been working very closely with the Kim Jong Il family and Kim Jong Il himself, including the current premier, Choe Yong-rim, who has worked very closely with the family for a long time. Kim Ki-nam is another, I think, key player who has been active in accompanying Kim Jong Il on many of his major visits.

So there is a group that is in the top rank of the party and defense commission apparatus that is there to provide support. The question, of course, is whether or not these individuals are all aligned with each other or whether there might be some splits.

And we have seen, about a year and a half ago, factional infighting, several notable disappearances or car accidents involving former key players. And there's been a lot of rumors, as Kim Jong Un has come in, that he's bringing a younger generation of people who are entering into the bureaucratic apparatus and are displacing some of the older individuals who have been playing key roles under Kim Jong Il.

SCHMEMANN: Thanks. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from Misha Gutkin, with Voice of America.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Good morning -- good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call. In August of this year, Kim Jong Un made a trip to Russia for a summit meeting with President Medvedev. And I wanted to ask if Russia is in a position to somehow influence the events, and also about how aligned or divergent U.S. and Russian interests are in regards to this transition.

SCHMEMANN: Yeah, Paul, what can you tell us about Russia's role? Obviously, the Soviet Union used to be a major benefactor, but in recent years, Russia and North Korea have not been as close.

STARES: Well, it -- things have improved, actually relatively recently. As you say, Anya, they've had a long-standing relationship with North Korea and supported them, obviously, during the North Korean war -- the Korean War, excuse me. And they've always felt that they are -- had a rightful place at the table, if you will. They are part of the six-party process, trying to denuclearize the peninsula.

Interestingly, as far as I know, they have yet to issue any condolences to North Korea since the announcement --

QUESTIONER: They did, actually. President Medvedev did issue condolences.

STARES: He did? He did say condolences today?

QUESTIONER: Yes.

STARES: Oh, he did. That was news to me. So much like China, they clearly are trying to express solidarity, to some extent, with North Korea. They have potential economic interests in North Korea. They're mindful that China's influence is growing in North Korea. And they've already started engaging in some upgrades to the infrastructure links between North Korea and Russia, which they adjoin. And there's also been talk about a pipeline from Russia right through North Korea to South Korea, too. So they're actually more active than they have been in a while and -- with regard to North Korea, so they clearly feel they are a player that has to be taken -- factored in here.

SCHMEMANN: OK, next question. Thanks.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Farah Stockman with the Boston Globe.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I just wanted to go back to food aid for a minute. The reports this weekend were that the U.S. was going to give biscuits but not rice, because of transparency issues and this idea that North Korea might be stockpiling rice for sale or for military use. There was reports earlier that South Korea had offered biscuits and other -- and medicine during a flood, but that North Korea had rejected that offer.

I mean, how much should the U.S. -- how far should the U.S. stick out its neck to give this food aid to North Korea? And how -- you know, how much do we stick to our guns on the transparency issue?

SCHMEMANN: Scott?

SNYDER: I -- my understanding is that, in fact, the U.S. was relatively satisfied with the protocol that was put in place in 2008 and 2009, at a time when the U.S. was delivering food assistance to North Korea; and in fact, that the World Food Program, in resuming its program in recent months, has actually been able to make some improvements in its monitoring protocols. So I think that there's, you know, no reason for the United States to, you know, compromise in its insistence on the types of monitoring standards that have been observed in the past.

The real challenge, I think, is that, you know, in the past, the assistance that the U.S. has given still has been, you know, into the North Korean system, and there's no way of independently determining greatest need.

I think that's one reason why the monitoring arrangements, you know, are very important and why, you know, the sole-purpose focus of food assistance to targeted groups is important. And that's the reason why, you know, rice provision is really simply a nonstarter. It's fungible. It is an attractive food for military and elites. And so it's much more likely to be subject to diversion than some of these other food categories, which have much more limited use or desirability.

SCHMEMANN: OK. Thanks.

Next question?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from John Rasch (sp) with the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

QUESTIONER: Good afternoon, and thank you all for taking the time. I wanted to know to what degree, if any, the State Department or certainly either of you have a sense of Kim Jong Un's philosophy or ideological orientation. It's widely assumed that it would not differ in any significant manner from his father, but are we sure of that? And if we know anything, what do we know?

SCHMEMANN: I think we're sure of nothing, but do you want to take a stab at that, Scott?

SNYDER: Well, you know, I think you just answered it. We really have a very limited knowledge base with regard to Kim Jong Un's, you know, ideas or thoughts or, you know, possibly intended direction that he would, you know, take North Korea.

Since he's young, I think the presumption is that he's going to be more bound to the elite and to the leadership and probably have less -- or elites and have less, you know, capability to, you know, go off in his own direction.

There are some people who point to his two years of boarding school in Switzerland as potentially important formative experience, but you know, I just think that in the end, in that circumstance, he's more likely to be captive to the system than necessarily embarking on, you know, new directions.

Having said that, I think the Achilles' heel for the North Koreans at this point is their need for economic assistance from theoutside. You know, the system exists on the basis of patronage at this point, and that means that the leadership and the leader, the top leader, needs resources in order to satisfy the core elites. And at this stage, that means that he needs cash from the outside. And so the mechanism by which North Korea is able to raise cash, I think, is the real pressure point for the regime.

SCHMEMANN: OK. Thanks.

If I could just jump in with a question, we mentioned the nuclear program here. But obviously North Korea is of interest because it's a dangerous, mysterious and unpredictable state with nuclear weapons. What do we know about their nuclear weapons program -- the progress that they've made, the likelihood for additional missile tests? Scott, what do you see on the horizon there?

SNYDER: Well, they're -- they clearly have made progress in terms of building their uranium enrichment program. It's obviously a major source of concern for the administration. It provides an alternative pathway to building a bomb that's probably more conducive to North Korea's level of technology, and North Korea also has indigenous uranium, you know, naturally within its boundaries. And so for all those reasons, it is -- and because of reports from Dr. Sig Hecker based on what he saw of the progress that North Korea has been making with that program, it's a major source of potential concern. You know, there are some estimates that if the number of centrifuges that Dr. Hecker saw are actually fully productive, that, you know, North Korea could be back to producing a bomb's worth of fissile material per year.

You know, the missile program has also been identified as a source of concern by top Defense Department officials. Most of the development on that front has been less easy to see from the outside because North Korea has not engaged in long-range tests since 2009.

That activity, of course, is prohibited under the U.N. Security Council resolutions, but it's notable that the DPRK media continues to make periodic references to North Korea's rights to peaceful use of space, suggesting that they may consider testing a multi-stage rocket again under the guise of launching a satellite.

SCHMEMANN: Paul, any --

STARES: Just to -- just -- yeah, just to add, as Scott mentioned, there's clear evidence that they're pursuing enriched uranium as a source of nuclear weapons. They also have stockpiled and tested a plutonium device, and they're believed by CIA and other analysts to have between five and eight bombs' worth of plutonium and they've tested it already. So we know that they have a capacity there. What they have not tested yet is an enriched uranium device. But again, it's understood that they have the means and the essential blueprints for such a device.

SNYDER: Yeah, thanks, Paul.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thanks.

Operator, if you could give one last reminder and then we'll take a few last questions.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Elaine Grossman with National Journal Group.

QUESTIONER: Hi, thank you for taking my question. I am interested in the command and control over North Korea's nuclear weapons. How much do we know about that? And what changes do you imagine might be occurring right now in the wake of Kim Jong Il's death?

SCHMEMANN: Scott?

SNYDER: I hope that the intelligence community knows more than I do about that. There's very little that I can offer on that.

STARES: It's a black hole. We're not -- I don't think we even know whether they have deployed capacity. The devices that they tested, it's unclear whether they were truly weaponized devices. There's some speculation about having some bomb designs for thatpurpose. But in terms of a deployed operational capacity, it may be only the very crudest capability -- operational capability exists.

As far as both the leadership chain of command, as well as the physical communications infrastructure, that -- I think it's -- there's next to nothing on that. And as far as I know, there's been no declared exercises of that capacity by North Korea, although they have talked about having an operational deterrent. But details are scarce to nonexistent.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thanks.

I think if we have no further questions, I'll just ask the two of you to sum up. And for those of us who are all watching this closely, what should we be watching? Which people, what events? We've talked a little bit about the extending of official condolences, but what other signals should -- be watching to help us navigate this transition?

Paul, we'll start by you. And then Scott, I'll give you the final word.

STARES: All right. Well, Scott mentioned some of the upcoming sort of decision points or key dates: the New Year's statement, the birthday celebrations in -- obviously in addition to the funeral and where people are placed on that. And the prominence of Jang Song-thaek, as Scott said, is going to be critical in showing the outside world who is really controlling the transition process, who is standing around Kim Jong Un and who is he speaking to, to the extent that we can monitor that. These are all critical signs for us. Any other statements from official propaganda sources in North Korea will be obviously closely (parsed ?).

How China responds -- do they send someone, who is that that they send, any kinds of joint statements -- these are all very, very important signals that we need to watch in the coming days and weeks.

SCHMEMANN: Thanks.

Scott, final thoughts?

SNYDER: Yeah, I would agree that one of the early indicators to the external (worlds/world ?) is likely to be carried out through Chinese diplomacy (in/and ?) interaction with the North Korean leadership. You know, the other things, I think, we are probably going to be looking for is, you know, any evidence of the planned -- the succession plan itself possibly going offtrack or evidence of contention surrounding that process.

It's a hard target, I think, in terms of identifying, you know, some of those evidences in public because there's not a -- there's not a lot of information-gathering capacity about what's happening internally. But for instance, in the mid-1990s there was a coup that occurred or a coup planned that was attempted that Kim Jong Il put down. You know, that's the kind of thing that we would probably want to know about that is possible to, you know, imagine as evidence of contention under the current circumstance.

SCHMEMANN: Well, thank you.

Again, this is a Council on Foreign Relations on-the-record breaking news media call. Thank you all for joining us.

Thank you to Scott Snyder and Paul Stares.

And again, do check back to cfr.org for updates throughout the day, including links to several resources and publications.

Thank you all, and that concludes our call.

SNYDER: Bye.

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