Will North Korea Collapse? (Part Two)

The death of Kim Jong-il will significantly disrupt the recent United States-North Korean negotiations over food aid and the termination of its nuclear activities. It was reported on December 17 that between December 15 and 17 (Kim's death on the morning of December 17th was probably not then known by the negotiators to have occurred), the U.S. and North Korea had resumed talks about food aid and there appeared to be an agreement to send 240,000 tons of food supplies in twelve monthly shipments of 20,000 tons each. The sides, the sources said, "reached the agreement based on North Korea's pledge to implement initial measures of denuclearization that include a suspension of its uranium enrichment program."

On December 18 -- the day after Kim's death but the day before the official announcement -- it was reported that "an agreement by North Korea to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program will likely follow within days." However, upon learning of Kim's death,

the Obama administration says it remains committed to stability on the Korean peninsula and is closely monitoring developments there following the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and the apparent transfer of power to his son.

The administration had been expected to decide, possibly as early as Monday, whether to try to re-engage the reclusive country in nuclear negotiations and provide it with food aid, U.S. officials said Sunday. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, said Kim’s death would likely delay the effort.

The officials said the U.S. was concerned about any changes Kim’s death might spark in the military postures of North and South Korea, but were hopeful calm would prevail.

As a minimum, it will be necessary for the United States to gather and analyze information from credible sources on who is in charge in the North and to see what may happen there next.

Kim's death had long been anticipated, with glee but also with trepidation. His quite young son, Kim Jong-un (variously reported as between twenty-eight and thirty), is his apparent successor and the path had been well laid for his succession; the "Brilliant Young General," who has no military experience,  is now referred to in the North Korean media as the “Great Successor.” However, it cannot yet be divined whether he will be accepted by the military or shunted aside so that a regent can assume control. In view of substantial propaganda efforts made during the past year or so to elevate his stature and popularity in the North, his continued but perhaps temporary presence in an at least a ceremonial role seems likely.

The leadership of China, said to be the only country with good access, is likely to be better able than any other to find adequate clues for predicting and perhaps for affecting the future. China may, or may not, share some of its information with the United States and others. If it does, there is no clear reason to anticipate that it will be completely forthcoming; to do so probably would not be in China's own best interests.