The Washington Post

What does Kim Jong Il's death really mean?

Dec 19, 2011

The death of Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader who threatened the world with his nuclear weapons ambitions and suppressed his own people with imprisonment and isolation, raises immediate questions about the future - and the stability - of perhaps the world's most isolated state, which for six decades has been held together by the Kim family personality cult.

Chat with expert Michael Nacht about what Kim's death means for North Koreans, as well as the rest of the world. Ask questions and submit your opinions now!
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- An enigmatic leader, Kim wielded terror at home and on the world stage

This is Michael Nacht from UC Berkeley ready to chat about North Korea.

Kim Jong Eun is a bit of a mystery to the outside world, with all we know about him seemingly being that he went to school in Switzerland, speaks passable german, and likes the NBA, which doesn't exactly set him apart from anyone else. I know that he was being groomed to take command, but how secure is his control going to be? Will there be any other parties interested in if not usurping, than at least honing in on some of the power in the country?

We know little more about Kim Jong Un than what you say.  He must retain support of the senior military and party leaders to be at least the nominal new head of state.  This suggests some tough policies in the beginning--note new missile tests this morning.  As long as he serves the interests of the ruling elite he will stay on top.  No signs yet of any more "progressive elements" with a chance to weild power, but things could change quickly--we know so little about their internal decision-making.

Dr. Nacht, do you think that reunification of the Korean peninsula would ever be possible, especially as long as China tries to maintain North Korea as its vassal state and as its geographical and political buffer? Is a more democratic reunification of Korea virtually impossible as long as North Korea and China, but particularly China remains a communist nation? Under what circumstance do you see a peaceful reunification and how likely do you think of its possibility? And what about the sustainability of unified Korea?

Most evidence suggests only a bloody armed conflict could overthrow the current regime, and there are no signs at all of it materializing.  Peaceful unification, in my view, cannot be achieved until this regime is removed.  So, we may have to wait for a very long time for unification which, by the way, would be very very troublesome to China if it produced a wealthy, democratic unified Korea with nuclear weapons.

Can we rule out the possibility of war between North and South Korea? I would think we cannot, if the North Korean Army feels threatened. If there is war, how do the two sides compare militarily? I know the North has a much larger army, but the South's seems to be better equipped, trained, and supplied. Given the North's food shortages, could its Army mount a sustained campaign before its food supplies run out?

We cannot rule out a new North-South war, but I judge it as unlikely because, given the US security guarantees to South Korea, the North Korean leadership knows this could lead to the end of their regime which is their top prioirity by far.  Instead increased repression internally may follow to ensure that any possible rival groups are quickly defeated.  Kim Jong Un must show that he is both capable of leading and also compliant with the wishes of the top generals and party ideologues, who themselves may not be unified

Do you believe the majority of NK people would be able to function in another type of society? They seem to be like members of a cult. How big a shock to the system might this be?

Do you see the Chinese grip / influence on NK strengthening or weakening with the young Kim in office? How do you see relations with Seoul changing? Would this be a good time for the US / west to hope for or incite a coup de etat? What would China's response be? If so, what direction would the next regime likely take?

China's aim is to keep North Korea largely dependent on them, keep the Korean peninsula divided, and preclude either a war that would lead to huge numbers of refugees fleeing to China or a unified strong Korea on their border.  Something close to the status quo may be seen as what is most in China's interests.

Negotiating with Kim Jong Il was sort of like negotiating with a puppy in a barking- at a certain point you just want them to shut up and go away. Will Kim Jong Eun be any more likely to be able to sit down at a negotiating table and have a semi-normal discussion, or can we expect 50 more years of the North Korean dictator/gong show?

The younger Kimstudied and traveled in the west and knows the modern world far better than his father, but he must retain the support of the elders--like Assad in Syria.  When push came to shove, the younger Assad has been as brutal as his father to retain power--probably similar to the choices Kim Jong Un wull face.

I know that North Koreans are taught that the Korean war was started by America. It occurs to me that not too far in the future all North Koreans who lived through the war will be dead, and there may be no North Koreans who know the truth. Do you believe that Kim Jong Eun knows the truth? Thank you!

I suspect he has been educated that North Korea was provoked to start the war in 1950.  Whether he has the ability to question the dogma of the party is unknown, nor do we know what he would do differently if he came to alternative conclusions since in some ways he is as much a prisoner of the regime as the people he rules.

Dr. Nacht, The media have been showing images of grieving North Koreans. Do you believe that grief to be spontaneous and authentic, or mostly staged?

I believe a lot of the grief is genuine.  Many Russians wept when Stalin died, and he wiped out more than 20 million of his citizens in peacetime.  You cannot overestimate the control the regime maintains in shaping the lives and views of their people.  It would take a few courageous individuals who see much more of the truth to carefully spread the word.  No sign of that yet in this truly "totalitarian" state.

Would a wealthy, democratic unified Korea really be that troublesome for China? As things stand, North Korea seems like much more of a liability for China than an asset.

Yes I think it would.  A prosperous South Korea as a trading partner and a north dependent on them is far preferable to a strong, united, democratic, nuclear-armed Korea that would raise new problems for China including the promotion of anti-Chinese communist party elements within China.

I've always thought of North Korea as the most evil place on earth, when you consider that the human rights violations that turn so many countries into nightmares are combined, in North Korea, with an isolation that literally robs its citizens of their right to learn and to think. No where was this more apparent than in the photo that was up earlier on the Post's homepage of people so grief-stricken, so overcome with emotion, you would think you were looking at parents whose children had died. The level of brainwashing is stunning. The rage I feel toward North Korea's leaders makes me wish we could take care of business there in a way that you probably wouldn't expect a knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberal (which I am) to champion. It's just such a terrible, heart-breaking place, and I can only hope that the death of this monster will ultimately lead to a reforms.

The US has to be very careful because North Korea has the ability to destroy Seoul--roughly half the South Korean economy--in 30 minutes and also to devastate Tokyo, even if this would lead to its own destruction.  When the US looked hard at military options against North Korean--under both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush--these were rejected because we cannot prevent devastating North Korean resposnes and none of the other major players--South Korea, Japan, China or Russia--supported such action.

Do you think North Korean people will accept Kim Jong Un as their next leader?

Many North Koreans may be skeptical of Kim Jong Un's preparation, but they may prefer continuity with repression than an unstable future that could be in their own minds even worse. 

You mentioned that Kim Jong Eun must maintain support of the elders. Who are the important groups that must be satisfied? Presumably the military is one; must Kim serve, say, a bureaucracy or a social elite?

Although knowledge is limited, there are a group of generals and communist party ideologues--several in their 80s--who appear to have control of the regime.

I think we've adressed many of the key issues.  Thank you for the opportunity of participating.  I'm signing off now.

In This Chat
Michael Nacht
Michael Nacht is a UC Berkeley professor of Public Policy and former Aaron Wildavsky Dean at the Goldman School of Public Policy. He has had three tours of government service and stepped down in mid-2010 after serving as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs for more than a year. He also served a three-year term as a member of the U.S. Department of Defense Threat Reduction Advisory Committee, for which he chaired panels on counter terrorism and counter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, reporting to the deputy secretary of defense. From 1994-1997, Nacht was assistant director for Strategic and Eurasian Affairs at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, leading its work on nuclear arms reduction negotiations with Russia and initiating nuclear arms control talks with China. He participated in five summit meetings with President Clinton ? four with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and one with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
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