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Succession Signals in Pyongyang?

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
September 7, 2010


Pyongyang is poised to hold a rare ruling Workers' Party conference widely expected to signal succession (NYT) to Kim Jong-Il. The conference, most likely to be convened this week to coincide with the sixty-second anniversary of the country's founding, is the first such major gathering of North Korean officials for more than three decades. Observers of North Korea say Kim's third son and presumed successor, Kim Jong-Un, could be announced to an important party post that would effectively confirm him as his father's successor.

The meeting comes amid speculation on the resumption of the stalled Six Party Talks aimed at denuclearizing North Korea. North Korea, which quit the talks in April 2009 following a long-range missile test, reportedly signaled willingness to return (Reuters) last month. Chinese state-controlled media reported that U.S. and Chinese officials have agreed to work together (Xinhua) to advance the talks, but U.S. officials were more noncommittal. U.S. State Department Spokesman Philip J. Crowley told reporters that North Korea "has to earn its place back at the negotiating table" by taking steps outlined in the 2005 joint statement to show its commitment to denuclearization. South Korean officials have also expressed reluctance regarding reengagement. This skepticism is fueled by the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, which a South Korean-commissioned probe linked to North Korea. Pyongyang denies this.

So far, the Obama administration has not given in to the North Korean pattern of nuclear brinkmanship followed by willingness to negotiate--which rarely yields concessions for significant steps toward nuclear disarmament. Instead, Washington has adopted what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dubbed a "strategic patience" policy (PDF) that essentially waits for North Korea to come back to the table while maintaining pressure through economic sanctions and arms interdictions. Washington announced new sanctions (Politico) last month targeting individuals and financial institutions that help fund North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and other illicit activities. Sung-Yoon lee, a Korea expert at Tufts University, writes in Foreign Affairs that North Korea will likely continue to tempt the Obama administration to restart negotiations through provocative actions and that a power transition "makes the odds of a nuclear test even more compelling" to bolster young Kim's legitimacy.

But any breakthrough with Pyongyang on its nuclear program is unlikely without China's support. Kim Jong-Il's recent trip to Beijing once again highlighted North Korea's dependence on China--its main political and economic ally. The visit was expected to strengthen economic cooperation between the two, and some news reports suggested it was connected to Kim's succession (WSJ). Chinese President Hu Jintao encouraged North Korea to speed up economic reforms (ChosunIlbo), but experts say there is little appetite for it today in North Korea, following a brief flirtation with some reforms in the early 2000s.

Additional Analysis:

A series of papers released by Ilmin International Relations Institute at Korea University addresses different dimensions of regime succession in North Korea, and offers policy recommendations for the international community.

This CFR Task Force report recommends that the United States prioritize contingency planning and work with North Korea's neighbors to plan for possible volatility in North Korea.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula need to be managed carefully so that growing South Korean and U.S. intolerance for Korean belligerence doesn't lead to unintended military escalation, say CFR experts Scott Snyder and Paul Stares.


This Council Special Report examines three potential succession scenarios and offers specific policy recommendations on how the United States can improve its ability to manage sudden change in the Korean peninsula.

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