Even as the reality of Democratic People's Republic of Korea leader Kim Jong-il’s death sunk in, speculation in Washington centred on the likely spike in uncertainty in the politics of that country and its potentially reduced engagement with the world that this could engender in the medium term.
In the face of the murky succession question in the DPRK reaction from the White House appeared to focus on the question of maintaining stability in the region. This was underscored by a phone call between President Barack Obama and President Lee Myung-bak of the Republic of Korea at midnight on Monday following news of Mr. Kim’s passing.
In the conversation the U.S. President reaffirmed his country’s “strong commitment to the stability of the Korean Peninsula and the security of our close ally, the Republic of Korea,” the White House said in a statement, adding that the two leaders would be staying closely in touch as the situation developed.
Commenting on the all-important nuclear question Richard Bush, Director of the Centre for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution said that “With Kim’s death the prospects for regional negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program and other issues in the near term are very low.”
Mr. Bush noted that any successor regime would have to consolidate itself before it would be prepared to engage the United States, South Korea, and others. “While there had been movement towards such engagement... little can happen now,” he added.
In comments to the BBC former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who led the delegation of the six-party nuclear talks on North Korea, said that he thought that the North Korean military was “going to be less inclined to do things with the international community [and] the Chinese are going to try and get in there very early and try to figure it out.”
Suggesting that the “heir-apparent, Kim Jong-un, [was] truly not ready [to be a] prime time player,” Mr. Hill said that that would imply that the country’s military would have a lot to say and Jang Song-taek, the brother-in-law of Kim Jong-il may have “a big role to play.”
Others however did not support the view that there was cause for concern in terms of the role of China in the future of DPRK politics. Robert Gallucci, President of the MacArthur Foundation and a specialist on the region’s politics, said, “I do not think we need to be overly concerned about a too-close relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang.”
He argued that the U.S. had gone to the Chinese many times since the Clinton administration through the Bush administration and possibly in the Obama administration too, “to get the Chinese to play a more active role in encouraging the North to be open to more negotiations...”
Dr. Gallucci further noted that significant changes in U.S. policies towards North Korea were unlikely. He said, “That there has been a willingness to engage the North directly in talks and to provide food assistance and other kinds of assistance and ultimately to improve the political relationship provided we can get the performance we need from the North Koreans that we need on their nuclear programme.” Dr. Gallucci said that such performance would entail initially a freeze on and then ultimately the dismantling of the programme.