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Preparing For Sudden Change In North Korea

Panelist: Paul B. Stares, Senior Fellow For Conflict Prevention And Co-Author Of CFR Special Report On North Korea, Council on Foreign Relations
Author: Scott A. Snyder, Adjunct Fellow For Korea Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Anya Schmemann, Director Of Communications And Marketing, Council on Foreign Relations
January 28, 2009
Council on Foreign Relations

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ANYA SCHMEMANN:  (In progress) -- communications here, and I'm very pleased to welcome you all here today to release a new report, a Council on Foreign Relations special report, "Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea."  You've all received copies.  You also have a copy of our press release in front of you.  The report was written by Paul Stares and Joel Wit.  We have one of the authors here today, Paul Stares.

A few housekeeping items before we begin.  If you could just take a moment to please just turn off your cell phone ringers, that would be welcome.  We are on the record today.  As I mentioned, we will have a recording of this up on our website later.

I also want to introduce a colleague, Melinda Brouwer, here at the end of the table, who is our primary media liaison in the Washington office.  So if you have additional questions or want more information, she will be your best contact for that.

In front of you, you have bios for both of our speakers today.  Paul Stares is our senior fellow for conflict prevention.  He's director of our Center for Preventive Action here at the Council, and he was previously with the United States Institute of Peace, has done a lot of research and work on Asian issues.

Scott Snyder is an adjunct fellow for Korea studies here at the Council.  He's also directing our independent task force on U.S. policy toward Korea.  He is affiliated with the Pacific Forum, CSIS, with the Asia Foundation, and the new Center for Korea Policy.  He has also just returned from Seoul -- yesterday, two days ago?

SCOTT SNYDER:  Last night.

SCHMEMANN:  Yesterday.  So he'll be able to give us a little snapshot from his recent trip.

We'll allow our two speakers to make a few introductory remarks and then we'll open it right up to questions.  So Paul, if I could ask you, if you could just walk us very briefly through the report.  Everyone has it in front of them.  But essentially you outline a number of possible scenarios and then U.S. options for responding to various scenarios.  If you could just outline those scenarios, possible U.S. policy options, and specifically what can or should the U.S. be doing right now to prepare for possible sudden change?

PAUL STARES:  Okay.  All right, well, thank you, Anya.  And thank you all for being here.  I recognize that this is not the best of days to come downtown and -- with the schools closed today.  Some of you may have children at home, so I do appreciate the effort that you've taken to come here today.

Let me just give a quick overview of the report, and I'll be happy to answer questions specifically addressed on the report.  I don't want to spend too much time on this because I know some of you have already had a chance to read through it.  But I thought I would start with some of the basic arguments and then get into more of the detailed content.

Really, the study, which began over a year ago and actually before the reported stroke of Kim Jong-Il, sort of grew out of a sense or a strong belief that we should not assume that North Korea is this unchanging country; that despite all the predictions of collapse, of demise, this never happens, and that we should actually -- that change, significant change, could come sooner rather than later to North Korea.  We should not be blindsided by that possibility.

We also believe that if change is going to come, it's more likely to come from above rather than from below.  And as many of you know, there are a lot of sort of structural impediments to a kind of people-power type revolution in North Korea.  There's no real civil society.  There's no political parties.  And if change is going to come, it's going to be from above.

And the biggest sort of uncertainty is the succession of the current leader, Kim Jong-Il.  Evidently there's no designated successor.  There's a lot of speculation about who might replace him.  And as you all know, he suffered a stroke, or apparently suffered a stroke, last August, it's believed.  And only until last week, when he met a visiting Chinese party member, did he actually appear in public in a way that's confirmable to the outside world.

I've actually looked into what the statistics for the sort of life expectancy for someone who has suffered a stroke at his age, and I can get into that later because I think it's kind of interesting.

The third basic premise of the study was that the U.S. and its allies need to be prepared for a range of contingencies in North Korea, and we need to not only engage our Asian allies in -- at preparation, but also I think we need to engage China.  It's very important since they play a pivotal role on the Korean peninsula.

As Anya mentioned, we looked at three contingencies.  And clearly there are many that one could dream up, if you will, but the ones that we thought were most relevant were relating to a potential succession in the short term.  And we looked at three.  Firstly, a managed succession; secondly, a contested succession; and thirdly, a completely failed succession.

The managed succession, which may be underway at this moment for all we know, is in which power is conveyed to either one of the sons or collective leadership made up of senior officials, with possibly one of the sons playing a sort of figurehead role.  It would essentially be designed to maintain regime continuity.

In terms of the challenges that would arise, we see relatively minimal challenges, although it's quite possible that the new leader in Pyongyang may have different views on the posture of North Korea, particularly on a range of issues -- (inaudible).  They may be more predisposed to open up the economy.  We just don't know.  But that would be the least challenging scenario as far as the outside world is concerned.

A more vexing one is a contested situation in which a faction or a particular individual within Pyongyang sees the opportunity to seize absolute power.  This might not be immediately.  It might follow a period of transition.  But there's been a lot of speculation about different factions within the military, intelligence services.  But the possibility of a contested succession, possibly even a violent one, should not be dismissed.

This could have a range of implications or challenges to the United States and its allies.  We tend to differentiate between what we call spillover effects and spill-in pressures -- spillover effects and spill-in pressures that are linked.

Should there be a prolonged succession crisis in which various groups do vie for power and possibly even conceivably major breakdown in civil order, we could see large-scale refugee flows coming out of North Korea, most likely in the direction of China, since that's the least protected border, but possibly to South Korea too.

We could see provocative military activities on the border, the possibility of unintended escalation between outside security and intelligence-gathering operations, trying to find out what's going on in North Korean military forces.  We could see pleas for help from within, both to Seoul and possibly even to Beijing, which would provide -- I think, present a lot of challenges to the U.S.; demands or requests for humanitarian assistance; and also something that I think will be on the minds of many people in such a situation as the security and safety of the various weapons of mass destruction.  Are they safe?  Are they under control?  Is there any chance that they might be seized or used even?  That's the worst-case scenario.  So all these issues could potentially come to the fore.

Now, if there is no real outcome in a satisfactory sense to this contested arrangement, we could have a failed succession in which no leader emerges and the whole process puts immense strain on the rest of the country.  I don't have to tell most of you that, you know, despite outward appearances, North Korea is a very weak state.  It suffers from chronic food shortages and other basic necessities, and it could really lead to the unraveling of political control around the country, and ultimately the collapse.

And here a whole range of challenges could arise in terms of the pressure to intervene, for humanitarian assistance, to maintain public order, to control weapons of mass destruction.  And then if it looked like unification were likely, then a whole other set of requirements and challenges would come about having to deal with the status of a united Korea.

Under each of these scenarios, there's a lot of potential for friction, both between the U.S. and South Korea and South Korea and the U.S. and China, and even Japan, through either unilateral actions or poor coordination.

So what should we do about this?  Well, firstly, I think the U.S. needs to improve and review its own national preparedness for various contingencies, enhance its ability to detect possible changes in Pyongyang, take advantage of other sources of information to ensure that it's not blindsided by events in the capital.

I think, on the basis of its experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. needs to make sure that its own contingency plans are broad-based, not just sort of military, but have -- take into account other key elements in any kind of contingency planning.

A second area which I think needs improving is U.S.-ROK coordination.  There's already been quite a bit of discussion between the militaries of both countries to develop a kind of basic contingency plan, but my understanding, not through any access to privileged information, is that those planning -- it's still fairly rudimentary and very much one-dimensional in terms of it being primarily between military to military rather than engaging other elements of both governments to develop a kind of integrated legal-political-military strategy for possible contingencies.  So that needs to be, I think, more broad-based and fleshed out more than it has been in the past.

I think we have to include Japan at some point in discussions about contingency planning.  I don't have to tell this audience there's political sensitivities at work here, but Japan is too important an ally to be on the sidelines in this kind of a process.

There are a variety of other initiatives that can be done to improve the capacity of the allies to deal with humanitarian contingencies and -- (inaudible) -- and so on.  And I think they should be reviewed and upgraded where necessary.

Finally -- and I will end soon -- I think we need to initiate quiet dialogue with the Chinese.  As I said at the outset, they're a pivotal player on the Korean peninsula.  They have major interests at stake.  The possibility of misunderstanding and unintended interactions with China are very real, and we need to consult them.

And I think what we advocate is a process of mutual strategic reassurance, essentially, so that we can better understand how intentions toward the Korean peninsula; to avoid, let's say, misperceptions and misunderstandings in any crisis.  This has to obviously be done very discreetly, very quietly.  The Chinese obviously have a preference to maintain North Korea as an independent state, and that's their default option, if you will.  But I think they are increasingly recognizing that there is the possibility of major instability in North Korea, and they too need to reach out to the United States and South Korea to talk about it.

There are a variety of other actors I think should be engaged too -- (audio break) -- have all got operations activities in the Korean peninsula.  And, of course, the six-party process is critical too.

So let me end there, and I'll be happy to answer your questions.

SCHMEMANN:  Good.  Thank you, Paul, for that overview.

Scott, as I mentioned, you're just back from Seoul, and I think we'd be interested in hearing from you the latest thinking in South Korea -- any concerns, new concerns.  Also, it's unclear if or how U.S. policy toward the region will change under the new administration.  So I'd be curious to hear what the thinking is on that, if there are, again, any concerns or thoughts.  And then, if you would, at the end, pick up a thread that Paul mentioned on China.  What is the likely response -- what will the likely response from China be to -- (inaudible).

SNYDER:  Okay.  Well, for those of you who have -- who come from Seoul, you know that actually there's nothing that is going on in Seoul right now because of the Lunar New Year holidays.  So I'll try to answer the question.  But the real action, I think, was in Pyongyang, as Paul alluded to.  And the fact that Kim Jong-Il met with Wang Jiarui, I think, has invited close observation in South Korea as well.

One aspect of that meeting that has not really gotten that much attention in the media but I think might be important to consider -- you know, some analysts have said that Kim Jong-Il is trying to send a signal that he's up and about and ready to meet any envoys from Washington.  But I thought that one other interesting aspect of that particular meeting was that it was also timed well from a Chinese perspective as a way of saying to the United States that China is still active with North Korea and can be a potentially useful partner in discussing issues related to North Korea.

The other thing that is happening -- that has happened in Seoul that everybody, of course, is aware of is that there is a change in the ministerial level officials.  In particular, in our case, the one that is most relevant is the appointment of a new minister of unification, Hyun In-taek, a professor at Korea University.  And I think it'll be very interesting going forward to examine whether or not we see changes in South Korea's policy approach toward the North in the context of the appointment of a new unification minister.

This will take some time to play out.  Right now he has to be confirmed in the National Assembly.  And, of course, there are problems right now in South Korean domestic politics which raise the question of how soon that might take place or whether the hearing might be delayed.  And so I think that is going to be interesting.

One of the questions is, you know, if the Lee Myung-bak administration wants to send a new type of signal, what type of signal would they send?  Or is the appointment of Hyun himself the signal that the Lee Myung-bak administration is trying to send related to the North?  And, of course, we see that the North finally, I think, yesterday or the day before yesterday did respond and was critical of Hyun.  So clearly they've made an initial interpretation in terms of what their expectation is that is very consistent with the high level of criticism that the North has offered related to the Lee Myung-bak administration.

And then -- Anya referred to it in her question -- the other area that I think is of interest in Seoul is what is the new administration in Washington going to be doing?  I don't think that people are really uneasy about it, but they recognize that it takes time for this process to play out.  And I think that there is an interest in engaging in discussions about North Korea at an early stage.  But -- and there's an interest in knowing how the Obama administration is going to frame its approach to North Korea.

And I would say that there are probably two elements to that that might be relevant.  One is people are waiting to see how the appointments line up -- and we're waiting, I guess, to see that as well.  But, you know, I think the two ways of thinking about what the administration -- how North Korea is viewed from Washington are how will the new administration approach its diplomacy toward North Korea, but then also I think it's probably the case that any activity related to -- or policy related to nuclear non-proliferation is going to be viewed not only in the context of North Korea, but also through the lens of Iran, and then vice versa.  And so that might be another way of kind of thinking through what one might expect as events unfold here.

So that's my trip report.  I look forward to any other questions.

SCHMEMANN:  (Inaudible) -- questions, this question of U.S. policy, continuity or change.  Secretary of State Clinton has essentially signaled that there will be continuity -- (off mike) -- what is your sense -- (off mike) -- where U.S. policy is likely to move or -- (off mike)?

STARES:  Well, at the beginning of every administration there is a policy review, regardless of what the policy area has been.  And I'm sure that a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, and the Korean Peninsula in general, is probably underway, or will shortly be.  In the meantime, as you say, Secretary Clinton has indicated the strong preference to continue with the Six-Party process, to -- (off mike) -- put that process back on track.

And -- (off mike) -- certainly very forward-leaning, in terms of the verification issue that -- (off mike) -- administration was criticized for being somewhat lax about.  And I'm sure that they are sensitive to -- (off mike) -- to that particular issue.

But, I think until, as Scott said, the various people -- key individuals are in place, we won't know until then really whether there's going to be any real significant change in the new administration.  (Off mike) -- certainly given what else in on their plate that they don't want to see -- (off mike) -- crisis occurring on the Peninsula and they want to keep things as stable and as calm as possible.  (Off mike) -- (inaudible).

SCHMEMANN:  (Off mike) -- questions that -- what I'll ask you to do is if you have -- (inaudible) -- just to put it up.  (Off mike) -- do not have one, just catch my eye and we'll go around the room.  If you would just keep your questions as brief as possible.  And we particularly will welcome questions on the subject of the report that is planning for -- (off mike).

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  My name is -- (name inaudible).  I'm working for South Korean newspaper, Chosun daily newspaper.  Thank you for your in-depth analysis with regard to North Korea's sudden change.

While reading your report, I found that you are stressing many times the importance of the law and order in China, very importantly.  And I fully agree with you that, with regard to the North Korea's sudden change, I think that China's role is really, really important and we need to think about that.

But one where I'm -- but, I'm somewhat skeptical.  You mentioned that you need to engage, and you -- this report requested coordinated and well-organized cooperation between United States and China.  But, as we know, that China is very negative, and I don't think that North Korea, they welcome that kind of a quiet dialogue between two countries.

So my question is, to what level do you think that that kind of cooperation between China and the United States is possible?  And how much is it feasible in the near future, especially in the Obama administration?

STARES:  Well, firstly, as you said, the key is to keep this as discreet as possible, and -- (off mike) -- not something to be publicly announced or to be advertised in any way.  So to avoid obvious sensitivities -- (off mike) -- Pyongyang, frankly, also with Seoul.  So, this has to be done as discreetly as possible.

I have no illusions that if we were to start this discussion -- and it may start at very low levels, maybe even what is sometimes called a, kind of, "Track 2," "Track 1.5" process in which non-government experts discuss the issues, with possibly a government official there as an observer, and then building up to something more.  Or, it could be done at very high levels.  And there is a kind of strategic dialogue that takes place now between the U.S. and China, and it could be raised in that context.

I don't, frankly, expect that the cooperation would result in something particularly tangible in the sense of, you know, joint exercises, or anything like that.  It's more about sharing each other's concerns about North Korea -- if they have them, sharing concerns about what either side might do in a particular crisis, and offering some basic reassurance about those concerns.

So, it's not like a kind of bilateral cooperative arrangement, it's more a process of building confidence, building somewhat -- some transparency with each other regarding North Korea.

Now, the Chinese have been reluctant to engage in those kinds of discussions for, I think, fairly obvious reasons, but there's been signs, I think, recently that they may be more open to that kind of dialogue -- again, if it's done very discreetly and certainly outside of public view.

SCHMEMANN:  (Off mike.)

SNYDER:  Yeah, well, I'll just add that -- I think it's on the record that the Bush administration tried to initiate a discussion with China on this subject and the Chinese declined.  Whether or not that might change in the future, it remains to be seen.  But I would agree that it's really most likely that that type of discussion would be undertaken on an unofficial, or Track 2, basis if it were possible.

I think that the Chinese are pretty hesitant about engaging in that type of discussion at this particular moment.

QUESTIONER:  I have just a follow-up question.

SCHMEMANN:  A very, very brief one.  There are a lot of people waiting.

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  This report mentioned that the United States might pledge to not establish military bases north of the 38th parallel.  So, I'm -- some are wondering, do you have -- is there any common -- is this any common idea of the Pentagon?

SNYDER:  This is in no way reflecting any kind of discussions with the Pentagon.  (Off mike) -- want to emphasize a report that's written by two scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations.  So there's no official input, or anything like that, just to be clear.

That idea was raised primarily -- (off mike) -- address a potential concern that the Chinese may have about -- (off mike) -- collapse in North Korea, or intervention in North Korea -- (off mike) -- outcome of that would not, in any way, undermine Chinese security.

And we know from -- (off mike) -- of the 1950s, the outset of the Korean War, that the Chinese are understandably very sensitive about the movement of U.S. forces close to their border.  And so it was really proposed in the context of a potential, most likely, concern that the Chinese have, but it doesn't reflect any official discussions or inside discussions with any -- (inaudible) -- U.S. official.

SCHMEMANN:  Okay.

QUESTIONER:  (off mike) -- where you touch on it a bit in the beginning, and -- (off mike) -- problems that North Korea presents -- (off mike) -- rights and general fit in this -- (off mike) -- especially given the sensitivities (of ?) China about that very same subject.  It's, you know, we -- (off mike) -- administration talk a good game but not really make a lot of head-way in that area, and there are people who argue that it would -- that would be a spoiler if, in any dealings with -- (off mike).

STARES:  We don't address that issue, other than the largess of the humanitarian issue about -- (off mike) -- possibility that we may have to feed and house refugees, and -- (off mike) -- (inaudible) -- in the event of sudden contingencies.

So, we really don't get into that.  I think there is room for a human rights policy.  It's always a balance between pursing that and other objectives.  (Off mike) -- some friction, as you know, in the Bush administration between how far to push the human rights agenda, and how far to push denuclearization.  And it is a balancing act, but I think there are precedents from the past, particularly in -- (off mike) -- process in which progress can be made.  It's not either/or.

(Off mike) -- how much the Chinese play in that, I don't know.  I haven't been following how they've responded to this, but it's not something that should be ignored.  But, I think, you know, there are -- (off mike) -- priorities.  I think that that should be -- (off mike) -- ways I think, and to have certain precedents over others.  But that doesn't mean to say you don't pursue -- (off mike) --

QUESTIONER:  (off mike) -- (Shinbun ?)

I had a question about your discussion about the Six-Party Talks and your recommendation to integrate -- (off mike) --

STARES:  (off mike) -- I'd said that, but I -- (off mike) --  I want to finish the question, and then I will --

QUESTIONER:  Okay, just wondering, you know, if you had any recommendations for integrating that into the Six-Party Talks given, you know -- (off mike) --  And then also on the talk about a special envoy, would he or she have any role in contingency planning?

STARES:  Just to be clear, in terms of what we recommend as far as the Six-Party process, we think it's important because it will address one of the principal concerns should there be -- (off mike) -- collapse in North Korea, which is the status of the nuclear weapons.  If the Six-Party process is successful then, hopefully, those nuclear weapons won't be there -- won't exist or will be under some kind of verifiable regime.  (Off mike) -- Six-Party process can obviously provide us with more information about the whereabouts of -- (off mike) -- weapons and other material, and -- (off mike) -- in that respect.

But, I don't see the process of contingency planning can be integrated into the Six-Party -- (background noise) -- for the obvious reason that one of the six parties is North Korea, and so they are not, obviously, willing to discuss their instability or demise since they will clearly -- (off mike) -- the whole premise of that.  Now, I think there are -- (off mike) -- discussions that can be made on the margins of that process, among other participants, that could be helpful-- (off mike) --

I think that one of the goals of the Six-Party process -- to create a Northeast Asia security mechanism, ultimately, and a peace treaty -- (off mike) -- are all worthwhile objectives and could help in the event that there is -- (off mike) -- know there is no real standing  mechanism, security mechanism -- (off mike) -- manage these kinds of crises, unlike Europe, which has a, in some respects, a surfeit of -- (off mike) -- manage instability, and there's no such equivalent in Northeast Asia.

So in the event that there is -- that the Six-Party process moves forward, then hopefully something like that would be created and could serve a real purpose -- (off mike) -- and that something happens in North Korea.

SCHMEMANN:  Can I ask Scott to just weigh in on the envoy -- (off mike) -- on the potential role of a potential envoy?  This is an area that is likely to change a bit from the previous -- (off mike) -- happen there.

SNYDER:  Yeah, I mean, it seems to me that the advantage of having an envoy is that that person serves as a point person for managing aspects of U.S. policy toward that particular issue.  And I would think that that would involve, you know, coordinating and being engaged in ensuring that the policy is effective in the context of diplomacy.  But if there are other issues that come up on the sides of that process, then I think that that person should also be prepared to address those issues as they relate to the main focus of that work.

QUESTIONER:  Peter Crail, with the Arms Control Association.

One of the criticisms that I heard, regarding the U.S. negotiations with North Korea, from (Larry Nixon ?) and others, is that there has been little to no dialogue with the North Korean military.  And I was curious, given the role of the North Korean military in, you know, in any succession scenario, can and should there be greater contact with the North Korean military in order to -- (off mike) --

STARES:  (Off mike) -- raise a very important question, and certainly during the Clinton administration -- and, Scott, correct me if I'm wrong, there were better contacts -- (off mike) -- Washington -- (off mike) -- on to the Clinton administration -- (off mike) -- push a deal.  But, there were also better working relations -- (off mike) -- (repatriation ?) that remains from the Korean War.  (Off mike) -- services regularly visited North Korea to -- (off mike) -- help the repatriation -- (off mike)

And from what I understand talking to people -- (off mike) -- (audio break) -- contacts were helpful -- (audio break) -- but also in, I think, (potentially ?) providing some insights into -- (off mike) -- why it might be.  I can't vouch for how important the intelligence was, if any, but we do actually say in the report that -- (off mike) -- contacts should be reinstated.  And it could potentially be -- and I underline the "could" be potentially useful in helping us should there be a change in the regime, or some kind of -- (inaudible) -- situation in Pyongyang, where the military's involved, it may help us be able to understand the situation.

I wouldn't want to put too much emphasis on that, but I can see, as I say, a double benefit in reinstating -- (audio break) -- excellent question.  I'm not sure how much I can say.  Not because I'm -- I know something I can't share with you -- (laughs) -- but, there's a lot of speculation and a lot conflicting information.  The reports -- (off mike) -- in terms of enhanced or upgraded security at the borders, reports of -- (off mike) -- North Korean military strengthening or upgrading the numbers, particularly at Chinese border.

I don't know whether they've been verified independently.  (Off mike) -- time there was a lot of speculation about Kim Jong-Il's state of health, and reports of a French doctor visiting Pyongyang to operate on him.  And I believe that has been verified, and that he did -- (off mike) -- reports that a kind of transitional arrangement was -- (off mike) -- set up, possibly involving his wife, or partner, playing some role as his personal secretary.

Again, this is all speculation.  It's not based on (laughs) any privileged information.  His brother-in-law is seen in many -- by many people as being a pivotal player within Pyongyang.  Chiang Kai-shek married to Kim Jong-Il's youngest sister.  In addition to the family ties, his own immediate family are very prominent.  I believe one brother heads up one of the security services, another one I think heads the Pyongyang military district.  And so he is seen as someone who (is ?) playing a kind of leadership role in this transition period.

In terms of what was happening at the Six-Party process, you know, it coincided with this friction over the verification issue, and a hardening of the North Korean stance.  Whether that had anything to do with Kim Jong-Il's illness, is pure speculation.  (Off mike) -- know the North Korean -- (off mike) -- made no mention of Kim Jong-Il's illness.  They continue to report that he was visiting factories and military units throughout this period.

(Off mike) -- officials vociferously denied there was anything wrong with Kim Jong-Il -- (off mike).  (Off mike) -- indicated at the outset, you know, that the meeting last week was really the first verifiable -- (off mike) -- of public appearance.  The picture on the front actually was released after -- (off mike) -- broke, but it's not date-stamped in any way to verify it.

So, that's about as best as I can say.  I don't know whether, Scott, you have anything else to add?

SNYDER:  (Off mike) a few points.  One, I think that we saw basically the same pattern, but there may -- but what was not clear was whether there might have been different reasons underlying that same pattern.  And, in my view, aside from the diplomatic objectives that Chris Hill had, that was a strong reason why a visit to Pyongyang in October I thought made sense.  It was essentially to affirm whether or not there was a change in North Korea's position as it related to the commitments to the previous agreements.

I think there are two other impacts that one can look at related to the illness.  One is that, in some respects, it was a test of North Korea's own continuity of governance plan.  In that sense -- although it's difficult to say anything about specifics, you know, it appears that whatever plan was in place seems to work.

There's also been speculation as to whether, you know, during the course of that plan, that could have had an impact in terms of internal, sort of, order of -- or power among close members of the coterie, and I think that's very difficult to get at.

And the final point that I would make is that this event I think serves to underscore, even for people closely watching the intelligence community, how little we know about decisionmaking processes.  And so, for me, it was really fascinating to see a kind of "evolution of views" looking much more carefully at the institutional configurations underlying the leadership, and to kind of revisit the conventional wisdom about what we think might happen in the context of that type of succession scenario.

STARES:  (Off mike) -- just to add quickly.  In a perverse way, it may have improved North Korea's ability to manage its succession.  (Off mike) -- not only it was a very good test of the, as Scott said, the continuity of government arrangements, but it may have been accelerated, if they don't already exist, or initiated -- they don't already exist, rather, the designation of a successor.

There was a lot of speculation last week, Yonhap -- a gentleman from Yonhap reported, there was a report that he had designated his third son.  This contradicted the report the day before that some kind of transitional arrangement with the first son was the preferred succession arrangement.

The first son was interviewed by Japanese Press enroute to Beijing, I believe, last week, and he professed no knowledge whatsoever of any succession arrangement, that this is his father's prerogative.  And the only interesting thing I took from that was the suggestion that a decision had not been taken yet.  But, that could just be that he's out of the loop, you don't know.  It can be cut various ways.

So, as I say, in a perverse kind of way it may have either initiated discussion of succession arrangements or possibly accelerated them.

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike) -- Washington, so there's no harm in reading some tea leaves here, but -- (off mike) -- I hope you'll have a question on -- (off mike) --

STARES:  (Off mike) -- (laughs).

SCHMEMANN:  -- (if change happens. ?)

QUESTIONER:  -- (inaudible) -- (off mike) -- (some people talked about -- (off mike) -- our program is -- (off mike) -- wondering if -- (off mike) -- the nuclear material -- (off mike) --

SNYDER:  Well, I guess there are two questions wrapped up in that.  One is, how far along are we, in terms of getting to a phase where it's possible to realistically imagine a CTR program?  And I think there's probably still a little bit of work to be done there.

And then the second, I guess, part would be that, in fact, we do have people on the ground who have been working at Yongbyon, as I'm sure you know, but I think that their situation is such that they're pretty isolated.  And so my guess is that we probably know a lot more about what Yonhap has reported, and how Kim Jong-nam's interview with the foreign media has gone, than anybody who's based at Yongbyon.

QUESTIONER:  Well, actually the first question was answered by -- (inaudible) -- , because my first question was Kim Jong-nam's rare appearance, you know, in the media.  And I wanted to know, you know, experts, maybe insight, in terms of the status of this succession plan in North Korea.  It may be just a speculation, but also there may be no, really the, plan actually taking place.  I mean, either way you can take it.  If you can add some more, you can do it.

And then my second one was that, I guess the early administrations of this Obama administration, we're trying to figure it out where this North Korean policy is heading to?  And, in terms of this important, you know, national preparedness for this sudden changes in North Korea, does that really hold a high priority, and then today really seriously taking this issue?  Maybe if you have some experience with interacting with officials in Obama administration, you know, you can give us some insight (that's all ?).

SCHMEMANN:  (Off mike) -- say your name.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, my name is -- (inaudible) -- with Voice of America.

STARES:  Let me take a first crack at that.  I think -- (off mike) -- so I'm not totally convinced that -- (off mike) -- the way he did to the Press.  You know, I'm sure some of you saw the photos of the baseball cap and, you know, this was not the (best ?) image I would think that North Korea would like to present to outside world.

So -- (off mike) -- about him living in Macau, and living a playboy existence.  And, you know, this -- (off mike) -- knows.  You know -- (off mike) -- what else I can add on other -- (inaudible) -- scenarios.

I know when Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang, Kim Jong-Il apparently told her that he admired the Thai system of a kind of constitutional monarchy in which (sort of, stays ?) above politics, but intervenes in politics when necessary, as we've seen recently in Thailand.  That was the model that he personally seemed to -- (off mike) --.

I can see the country moving to a kind of Vietnam model, in which -- (off mike) -- surrounding the -- (off mike) -- and family is maintained, but it evolves politically and economically -- (off mike) -- fashion.

(Off mike) -- I can't say anything more about the other sons.  Very little is known about them.  The third one, apparently, was schooled in -- (inaudible) --.  (Off mike) -- photos of him released -- (off mike) -- I can't verify that was actually him.  They're fairly young.  They've had no, as far as I know, preparation or -- (off mike) -- remember that Kim Jong-Il was groomed for some 30 -- excuse me, some 20 years prior to -- (off mike).

(Off mike) -- had a lot of experience of progressively more senior positions before he actually did, and some people say that he really was running the country for years before his father died.  I don't see any evidence of that happening, at the moment, in -- (off mike).

I mentioned Kim Jong-Il's wife possibly playing a role.  There's been speculation that, during this period when he was ill, that they say she played the kind of gatekeeper role, much the way that when Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in office his wife was able to act as a, sort of, a intermediary, go-between.  And I've heard -- (off mike) -- North Korean officials talk about the Wilson model as being in effect, but I can't, obviously, say that's the case.

SCHMEMANN:  So on the second question of priorities.  The box is obviously quite full -- (off mike) -- of problems that need to be --

SNYDER:  So far, I think we see that there are a lot of other issues that should take precedence over North Korea.

I think that the other striking aspects of what we've seen so far is that the transition in the administration has pretty much dealt with North Korea strictly in the context of nuclear nonproliferation.  Whether or not that changes as new people come on board, whether it becomes part of a regional strategy or whether the appointment of some kind of envoy would change that configuration remains to be seen.

But I personally think that it's striking that so far that issue has really been -- North Korea has been defined in the context of nonproliferation.

SCHMEMANN:  (Off mike.)  Yes, Ai (sp) -- is that how you say your name?

QUESTIONER:  My name is Ai Awagi (sp).  I'm from (GG Press ?) Japanese Newswire.  Aad thank you so much for your briefing today.

My question is on the six-party talks, probably following up on his remarks just now.

Well, Kim Jong-Il came out and -- at this timing and showed his willingness to have a dialogue on the nuclear issue.  But on the U.S. side, the policy review is still underway and we don't know how long it will take.

So do you think the U.S. should go ahead and, you know, have a direct engagement with North Korea and they should start soon?  Or -- well, I understand that Secretary Clinton said that the six-party talks are essential.  But she -- at the same time, she sounded like she might pursue other steps also.

So I'm wondering, you know, if this new administration might pursue more direct dialogue -- direct negotiations with North Korea outside of six-party talks, you know, while it's maintaining the framework.

Thank you.

SCHMEMANN:  Speculation there -- (laughs) -- speculation everywhere.

STARES:  Yeah.  I don't see this administration -- (off mike) -- there will be other types of engagement with North Korea -- (off mike) -- candidate Obama -- (off mike) -- direct engagement with problem countries.  And so it's -- (inaudible).

SNYDER:  I mean, the other thing that I think needs to be said on this is that at the end of the Bush administration we also had bilateral talks.  And so I think the situation as it stands now, you know, it suggests strongly a sense of continuity in terms of approach.  And it'll be interesting to see whether there is a change in the weighting of bilateral versus multilateral.  But so far I think that's yet to be determined.

QUESTIONER:  Tewan How (sp) from South Korean Newspaper -- (inaudible).

The current situation reminds me of the situation of North Korea back in 1994.  At that time, the Father Kim died and there was huge famine and 100,000 people died.  And North Korea -- I mean, South Korea and U.S. believed that North Korean regime will collapse.

And at this moment, maybe Kim did not die and there was no famine and they have nuclear weapon and they say they get stronger year by year.

So do you believe a sudden change in North Korea is pretty imminent?  And what is the difference between 1994?  And they have endured 15 long years and they did not collapse at all.  So what is your judgment?

STARES:  As you indicate, Korea has defied many predictions of demise since at least the end of the Cold War and a parlor game, certainly during the 1990s, how long it would last.  And so as I restate at the beginning of the book, it was under a kind of a prolonged deathwatch for most of the 1990s.

And I think several things differ from 1994.  One is, as I mentioned earlier, Kim Jong-Il had been groomed for power for many years so that the succession process -- (off mike) -- relatively smoothly, or at least in some preplanned fashion.  And so it might not have been the shock that if he were to die today might be, with what we understand there being no designated successor.

You could also say that the resilience of North Korea has essentially been eroded further since -- (off mike) -- it's gone through a massive famine, a contraction of its economy.  There was some upward blip, I think, at the beginning of this decade, but as far as I can understand, it's been declining again.  The U.N. recently put out warnings of a major famine, a food crisis in North Korea.

So this is a country that's still extremely weak.  The other difference, I think, is the access of individuals in North Korea to outside information has improved -- whether it's pirated DVDs to cell phones and other access.  So I think there's a difference in that respect.

But we're not predicting that there's going to be collapse tomorrow.  We're just saying that something has to be considered among a range of possibilities.  And as I suggest at the outset, one of them is a relatively smooth transition of power.  And that obviously cannot be discounted.

I did say at the outset that some speculation about, you know, how long Kim Jong-Il might live.  And I actually looked at some of the medical statistics on this.  And for a man in his mid-60s who suffers a stroke, 25 percent die within a year -- they are U.S.-based statistics.  That's, you know, significant odds that you have a 50-50 chance of surviving five years.

What complicates it somewhat is  is believed to be a diabetic, and the life expectancy, according to a large study done recently by Indiana University -- hundreds of thousands of cases were studied -- goes down by about 15 percent.  So you know, they're not terrible odds, but they're not great odds either.

So we do believe that this is not -- the possibility that he might die sooner than later should not be dismissed as being completely implausible.  We think it's quite plausible.  And pictures that were released last week showed a smiling, joking Kim Jong-Il.  He seemed pretty good.  They weren't -- you'll notice there weren't videos so we couldn't get a sense of how he was walking and there was no audio either, so we don't know how he sounded.

SCHMEMANN:  He did look thin.

STARES:  And he looked emaciated.  But otherwise he looked pretty good, so, you know, he could be around for a long time.  His father was, what -- 84, I think, when he died -- something?  And so you know, but we don't know how good his health is.  In other respects he's had a rather loud lifestyle in his youth, so who knows what toll that had on him.

SCHMEMANN:  What is Russia like recently?  (Off mike)  -- Russia seems to be involved, but benign -- (off mike) -- actively involved?

STARES: Not on this.  I should say I believe the deputy foreign -- Russian foreign minister is either in Pyongyang today or due to arrive shortly, which again betrays Russia's continued interest in -- (off mike) -- share a border, albeit a very, very short border.  (Off mike) -- certainly until relatively recently, the presumption is that Russia would not play a particularly active role other than through being members of the six-party process.

(Off mike) -- peninsula.  It obviously has interests to be taken into account, but under the new climate of U.S.-Russian relations, I think, you know, we cannot assume that Russia would be a passive or a sort of compliant partner in -- (off mike) -- Russians on North Korea.  But I'm sure they also share some core interest in wanting to maintain stability on the peninsula and security and safety of WMD and so on.

SCHMEMANN:  (Off mike.)

SNYDER:  You know, Russia obviously has a kind of legacy interest and a desire to become -- to continue to be involved, I think, on -- (off mike) -- as was evidenced by the vice ministry's visit.

Russia also has couched its interest in the peninsula in economic terms -- (off mike).

And then also, interestingly enough, Russia is also probably, you know, the major power surrounding Korea that has been most active, at least rhetorically, in terms of the supporting the idea of unification.  So I think that's notable.

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  Hung Mu Chey (ph) of -- (inaudible) -- Daily Korean Newspaper.

Discussions following up the previous discussion about Russia's role.  What international law would apply in a sudden change in North Korea -- a sudden collapse?  We have granted that North Korea -- the responsibility to take care of North Korea would fall on Korea or the U.S.

But internationally, North Korea is an internationally recognized country and it's a different country from South Korea.  So you cannot automatically, you know, take in charge of North Korea.  I don't think we -- USA or Korean Army -- would advance in Korea.  So there might be some opposition from Russia and China.  So they are prepared, you know, to take North Korean region and some international managing an area or some international regime.

So what do you respond to that?

STARES:  Yeah, well, you've put your finger on a very important point, which is should things in North Korea deteriorate to the point where there are pressures to intervene, what is the basis of legitimacy to that intervention in law, since they are two independent states recognized by the United Nations?

I think we have made clear that the preference would be to have a U.N. sanction for that intervention, even though South Korea under its own constitution -- Article 3, I'm sure you know, binds Korea as being the whole peninsula and adjacent islands and so they could conceivably say this is not an international intervention under those terms.  But I think most would believe that that is sort of a weak -- (off mike) -- rely on and it's better to have U.N. support, which then raises, as you say, the question of whether China and Russia would veto such a -- (off mike).

And I think we can talk about the situation, but it very much is scenario dependent.  And one can imagine their opposition, but one can imagine their support -- depending on how things are unfolding.  But without there being, I think, a real emergency it's hard to imagine that they would give a green light to that.

You also pointed to, I think, another important point, which is I think it's very much in U.S. interest and their preference is to see the Republic of Korea take the lead in any kind of incursion into -- (off mike) -- not just in terms of the forces that might be required, but there are other obvious benefits too.  The only exception would be possibly some concern about the weapons of mass destruction.  And I think this is not something that the U.S. wants to take on unilaterally or without any kind of consultation with South Korea.

QUESTIONER:  Just follow up?

SCHMEMANN:  Yes.  Follow-up here briefly.

QUESTIONER:  About China's and Russia's role in Korea's reunification.  I think many American scholars and government -- even government officials talk about that.  I think that's very dangerous.  Just like the United States allowed the Soviet Union to occupy the northern part of Korean peninsula, which resulted in the division of the Korean -- Korea.

You know, Korea has a very strong sense of national unity as a nation state.  Not just like even in China, which has been divided and united for several thousand years.  South Korea has maintained, you know, one nation -- ethnic nation state for several thousands years.

You know, that created a lot of problems at the moment.  So the United States is partly responsible for the Koreas.  You know, the United States just to do that -- allowed the Soviet Union to move into North Korea just for convenience purposes -- just casually.  Just, you know, just because that's the level of the knowledge of history.

So my opinion is there should be -- Russia's and China's role should be limited to the minimum level in the Korean unification.  What do you think?

SCHMEMANN:  (Off mike.)

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  I'm -- (inaudible) -- from Nikkei Newspaper, Japan.

Slightly related to the question, in preparation for the possible transition, you mentioned a couple of positions including cooperating U.S.-South Korea dialogue and dialogue with China.

But is there any merit in creating some kind of contract group type with all the regional partners, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia, for that matter -- probably someone from Southeast Asia to coordinate policies?  Something like we had back in '90s in Europe when the Yugoslavia went into chaos.

Thanks.

STARES:  I'll take the last one first.

(Off mike) -- frankly, that a kind of contact group arrangement -- a multilateral contact group -- (off mike) -- there is a major crisis.  I can see how if there is real instability in the north that requires multilateral coordination to deal with, then I can see a contact group being formed, whether it's a version of the six-party process or something along like that.

But I don't see that that process would be particularly productive in the absence of a major crisis.  I think people are reluctant to talk openly.  And there is within alliance channels -- (off mike) -- U.S./ROK, U.S./Japan.  And as we suggest, a kind of trilateral context too, I think participants can be more candid.  They can be more concrete in terms of what can be discussed.  Therefore, that the results can be more productive.

But that, as I say, does not preclude the possibility of a -- say, an international contact group should things really unravel.

The first question, obviously, you know, I think everybody understands the sensitivities involved about -- (off mike) -- and wants to see a continuation of -- (off mike) -- any longer than necessary.  And I think there is a lot of concern.  I think you've alluded to it, about possible intervention, if not by Russia then certainly by China.  And there's been some discussion of the circumstances in which  China might intervene.

This is, frankly, why we are pushing for a quiet dialogue to have a sense of some reassurance about interventions in the crisis, to avoid any real friction and misunderstanding that might arise through -- we'll say pressures that might arise to intervene.  But I don't think anybody has any illusions about -- (off mike) -- outcome of any collapse a fully unified Korean nation.

QUESTIONER:  I wanted to follow up a little bit on this and sort of your earlier discussion -- (off mike) -- say that it might be better to put more emphasis on -- (off mike) -- reality than all these kind of bilateral discussions, because you have some kind of forum and some kind of institution that by its nature of actually having people there creates interest in doing -- (off mike).

I wanted to get your sense of -- if you were to get two minutes with President Obama and you could say, you know, how much emphasis do you put on that versus talk to the Chinese, talk to the Koreans, talk to the Japanese?

STARES:  I think there's merits to have some kind of mechanism to make it too narrowly focused.  However, I'm not sure, frankly, it achieves much.

(Off mike) -- addresses a range of issues, environmental cooperation.  (Off mike) -- issues, thought based and has a real functional substance, then I think it has value.  But if it's a -- (off mike) -- to somehow suggest that we are cooperating on security issues, I'm not sure it fools anybody as being of real value.

So I think if it were to set up, I would like to see it have several dimensions, functional dimensions, to give it substance of real value.

A lot of words wisdom from a -- (inaudible) -- on that one.  (Laughter.)

SNYDER:  I agree that, you know, the distinctive element that is missing from the six-party talks that one would want to see in any kind of institutionalized multilateral dialogue is the capacity to deal with issues beyond just North Korea.

I think that to the extent -- and so that's the reason why I'm actually skeptical that there will be a Northeast Asia peace and security mechanism in the end.  Because, you know, if it's supposed to take over from the six-party talks after we've solved the North Korea problem, then what are they going to talk about?

So you know, if you can build that in in some way as part of a strategy to establish a sustained, regional mechanism to deal with a broad range of issue, then that's great.  But right now, it's hard to find traction.

SCHMEMANN:  (Off mike.)  Thank you.  (Applause.)

STARES:  Don't hesitate to contact me.  I gave most of you my card, so I'm happy to chat with you afterwards and subsequently.

Thank you.

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