WASHINGTON — The failure of foreign intelligence to detect Kim Jong-Il’s death shows just how little is known about nuclear-armed North Korea, but moves by the outside world to gain influence are also fraught with risk.
All countries including China, North Korea’s primary ally, appeared to have been in the dark until a tearful television presenter made the announcement on Monday, two days after the 69-year-old Dear Leader was said to have died.
North Korea’s neighbors and the United States, which is treaty-bound to defend South Korea and Japan, are watching warily as the impoverished, isolated and heavily armed nation comes under the rule of his young son Kim Jong-Un.
Victor Cha, who was a top adviser on Korea to former president George W. Bush, said that virtually nothing was known about Kim Jong-Un and that any US effort to reach out to him came with the risk of undermining him.
“It’s like a fishbowl. We’re all kind of looking in and we’re trying to figure out how things are happening,” he said.
“But no one dares stick their finger in there because you have no idea what it’s going to create,” said Cha, now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Georgetown University.
Just as Kim’s death was announced, President Barack Obama’s administration was finalizing details on potential food aid to North Korea, part of a strategy of keeping low-level ties with a regime in hopes of avoiding a worse crisis.
Jack Pritchard, a former US negotiator with North Korea, said that the most urgent priority should be contingency planning as he believed there was a high chance that North Korea’s system will collapse.
Pritchard expected initial calm, but doubted that the North’s all-powerful military would respect the young Kim, even if he is officially a four-star general. Pritchard said the late Kim was aware of the problem and hence tried to elevate the role of his Workers’ Party, but with uncertain results.
“The idea that Kim Jong-Un is going to come in with a new slogan and say ‘Military, Second!’ is probably not going to go over well,” said Pritchard, the president of the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute.
The military “will become the dominant force, at the forefront or certainly behind pulling the strings, of — for a short period of time — the face of North Korea, a chubby 28-year-old,” Pritchard said.
But Pritchard said the United States should at least try to seek smoother relations through efforts such as food aid. He said the United States could also restart joint searches with North Korea for the remains of US dead from the Korean War, after the two countries reached a framework in October.
“I’m not optimistic that we’ll get very far, but we certainly have an obligation to pursue all of those options,” Pritchard said.
The Obama administration has been cautious in its approach. It has sought coordination with allies and called on the younger Kim to embrace the “path of peace” in a statement that carefully avoided direct condolences.
Some lawmakers of the rival Republican Party have urged Obama to go further and avoid any steps that could stabilize Kim Jong-Un’s rule, saying that regime change should be an explicit goal.
But some experts doubted how much the United States can do. James Kelly, a diplomat who led the US side at now-moribund six-nation denuclearization talks with North Korea, warned that the United States has limited influence and that Pyongyang would not give up its nuclear weapons even if negotiations resume.
“The US will not be able to do very much in the near future, as North Korea will be sorting out its leadership questions — about which we know little — for at least some months,” said Kelly, a former assistant secretary of state.
“Even if — and there is zero evidence — Kim Jong-Un is a reformer, he has not been put in place to change things but to continue the family’s rule,” he said.
“The US needs to understand that China and even South Korea are the real players with the DPRK, and the US is often used as a distraction by the DPRK to avoid coming to grips with serious issues with South Korea,” he said, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The two Koreas remain technically at war and tensions rose sharply last year when the North fired on an island in the South and was blamed for torpedoing a warship, incidents that killed 50 people in total.
China has been the main economic and political supporter of the North. China is seen as fearing that a collapse of North Korea would trigger a flood of refugees and eventually bring a unified and US-allied Korea to its border.
“You cannot get around the basic fact that the Chinese are going to hold the driver’s seat with the survival and the demise of North Korea,” Pritchard said.