No Signs Kim Has Eased Control in North Korea

Don Oberdorfer, a leading expert on North and South Korea, says he sees no evidence North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il has moved to relinquish control, despite reports concerning his illness and succession.  

January 21, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Don Oberdorfer, a leading expert on North and South Korea, says there are no clear signs yet that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is too ill to run the country. "We would know if he were in such a state that he could not function and he couldn’t give any instructions," Oberdorfer said. "Things like that trickle out of the North. That’s not been the case." He said he believes the Obama administration will step up diplomacy on North Korea but doubts there will be major initiatives in the short term. "The administration has got lots of things on its plate" and this "is not an issue where you can get any early returns. I remain skeptical it’s going to be a major item."

What’s the status of the North Korean dialogue with the United States? At different times last year, it looked as if we were on the verge of a really significant agreement. Then it sort of fell apart. What happened?

I’m not entirely sure. There was less there than meets the eye. A lot of people expected more than was likely to happen. There are contacts. You have the Six-Party Talks, which basically authorized and legitimatized discussions between the United States and North Korea. That was certainly a positive. But on the other hand, it didn’t really go far to settle any of the outstanding issues that are on the table. So, the best thing is that there were contacts, but that didn’t itself solve many of the problems involved.

Recently, the North Koreans issued a statement saying they were not going to completely denuclearize until the United States gave them proof that the United States had no nuclear umbrella anymore to protect South Korea and would recognize them diplomatically. I guess there is a nuclear umbrella in the sense that if South Korea was attacked by nuclear weapons, the United States could respond. But there are no nuclear weapons in South Korea anymore, correct?

That’s right. But the North Koreans claim they’ve never been really assured of this. They want to go into South Korea and look around and inspect and see that there are no American weapons there. But neither the United States nor South Korea is very big on that idea.

Hillary Clinton, in her confirmation hearing as the next secretary of state the other day, talked briefly about North Korea. She said the new administration supported the Six-Party Talks on North Korea involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan. Do you think the Obama team is likely to have more diplomatic activity with North Korea than the Bush administration?

Oh, I think so. On the other hand, it’s not a very high priority for the Obama team as far as I can tell. Senator Clinton mentioned North Korea in her statement before the Foreign Relations Committee that the United States will continue to prevent proliferation in North Korea and Iran, and to secure loose nukes, and to try to shut down the market for the materials. The real concern of officials in the U.S. government is not that North Korea is going to attack anybody with nuclear weapons, but that some of these weapons and weapons materials could get into the hands of very unreliable countries or non-governments. It would be extremely dangerous for some of these countries to have nuclear materials or nuclear weapons. Of course there are questions about Iran as well. No one I know thinks there’s much chance of North Korea attacking South Korea or any other place with nuclear weapons, but it’s the nuclear materials that it now clearly has that is cause for concern.

There was a press conference in Seoul yesterday by Kim Dae-jung, who of course had opened the doors to better dialogue between North and South, when he was president. Kim said the North wanted security and economic assurances from the United States. "Chairman Kim Jong-Il aspires to improve North Korea’s relationship with the United State. I assure you that this is an indisputable fact," he said.

I think it’s actually right. The question is: What are the terms? It’s clear that they would like to have relations with the United States, but from our standpoint what are they willing to give up and what commitment will they make to make in order to get the U.S. recognition and normalization?

I guess it’s very hard to tell what’s really going on in the North, with all the stories about Kim Jong-Il’s reported stroke.

That’s true. My view---and I don’t claim to know what the state of Kim Jong-Il’s health is---is that if he were dead or if he was unable to be a factor in decision making, we would see that. We would see something was going on in the North, of a nature we have not seen. We’d know it if he died, and we would know if he were in such a state that he could not function and he couldn’t give any instructions. That would be clear. Things like that trickle out of the North. That’s not been the case.

So you don’t think it’s necessarily that there will be a change in the guard right away?

Only if he dies.

Do you think he might give up the presidency because of poor health?

It’s very unlikely.

South Korea’s relations with the North are in what shape right now?

Well, they’ve had periodic discussions through the Six-Party Talks, and they have had bilateral discussions. The positive thing is that there have been talks. The negative thing is the talks haven’t gotten very far. So, the situation is hopeful but very much unresolved.

On Thursday, South Korea’s nuclear negotiator, Hwang Joon-kook, went to North Korea for disarmament talks. He said that he would discuss the purchase of fourteen thousand unused fuel rods from North Korea’s nuclear stockpile as part of a disarmament-for-aid deal the North struck with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. I guess that’ll be an interesting indication if that deal goes ahead.

If it comes about, that would be a very positive development. Whether it will do so I’m not sure.

I guess with North Korea, nothing goes straight ahead. It’s always two steps forward, one step back. Do you think the new administration is likely to take some new direction or even intensified activity regarding Korea?

I’d like to see this happen, but I have to say, I don’t really see it as very likely at the moment.

Why is that? Obama’s talked about negotiations with everybody.

Yes, but North Korea is a hard case. And unless you are going to make it a very high priority, it’s going to take a tremendous amount of commitment and activity, and I’m not so sure that will happen.

I don’t see the early signs that’s likely to be such a big priority. The administration has got lots of things on its plate. The point is that this is not an issue where you can get any early returns. I remain skeptical it’s going to be a major item.