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Seize the Moment in North Korea

Author: Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action
December 22, 2011
International Herald Tribune


The world outside North Korea appears to be more unhinged by the sudden death Kim Jong-il than the country he ruled over for 17 years. There are certainly good reasons to worry about the prospect of his 27-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, taking the reins of a belligerent nuclear armed state. The United States must for this reason clearly hedge against the downside risks. But there are equally good reasons to assume that the succession will proceed smoothly and thus the United States should also be prepared to explore the upside opportunities.

The fact that whoever is currently in charge in North Korea was able to effectively conceal the death of Kim Jong-il from the outside world for over two days is indicative that they are fully in control. Carefully choreographed displays of grief notwithstanding, the capital Pyongyang is by all indications calm. And the North Korean military has also reportedly not gone on alert or done anything menacing.

This might not have been the case had Kim Jong-il died when he had a major stroke in August 2008. That really did appear to shock the regime, and the country may have been rudderless for some days thereafter. Kim Jong-il's recovery gave him the opportunity to plan and put into motion a deliberate succession process.

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