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Last modified: Tuesday, September 30, 2008

IU expert: North Korean leader's health complicates diplomatic realities facing the next president

Sept. 30, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's failing health could present an even greater challenge to the next president than his diplomatic exploitation of his country's nuclear weapon's program, according to an Indiana University historian who has written extensively on the Asian nation.


"Kim Jung-il has been the undisputed leader, and he has been in control of the important levers of power in North Korea since his father's death," said Michael Robinson, an IU professor of East Asian languages and cultures and an adjunct professor of history. "They spent 20 years getting him into that position to succeed his father, with the same level of his father's omnipotence.

"We can talk all we want about North Korea and their nuclear policy, but if Kim Jong-il is really sick, and his death is impending, all bets are off," Robinson continued.

There is no apparent heir prepared to lead in his absence. A power struggle could lead to conflict among the military, the political party and Kim Jong-il's family. Even without a regime change, the next president should expect to deal with a North Korea that continues to challenge the nonproliferation and disarmament efforts of the United States and the international community.

In the past few days, as the United States has dealt with a financial crisis, it has been clear that North Korea has continued to pursue its strategy of using such distractions to push its own agenda. Last week, the country expelled U.N. monitors from its nuclear plant and announced plans to start reactivating it this week.

"I think the financial crisis has emboldened them a bit," Robinson said. "The more recent pronouncements might have something to do with us being distracted by our internal and global financial worries."

Previously, with some recent success with the Gulf War, North Korea had agreed to give up nuclear ambitions in return for promises of removal from the U.S. list of state sponsored terrorists, aid and diplomatic concessions. "Why is it hard for us to keep our interests going on all burners?" Robinson asked.

"North Korea's nuclear program is absolutely their top priority, and that is because it is the most inexpensive and simplest way for them to create a deterrent for regime survival," Robinson said. "Fundamentally that is the policy of the North Korean government -- survival of the regime."

Robinson is reassured by the fact that no major player in the six party talks actually wants to see the regime fail. While some participants -- particularly the United States -- in the six party talks would like to see a more open regime and economy, the alternative of government collapse is a risk no one will take. This situation could lead to millions of refugees pouring into China and South Korea, along with one of the world's largest militaries completely under its own control.

In terms of future U.S. policy, Robinson argues that the next president should "engage the North . . . and just continue to try to pull them outward, whether it be through free trade agreements, free trade zones or humanitarian efforts -- whatever we can do to deal with them in spite of their rhetoric."

While many lament what could be perceived as rewarding defiance of international law, Robinson argues that this approach was successful and responsible for the modernization and moderation of regimes such as the former Soviet state, the People's Republic of China and Vietnam.

He notes that if Pyongyang was truly strong they would not need to engage in international talks -- so they clearly have no choice but to seek some conditional aid.