By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — North Korea continues to keep U.S. denuclearization efforts off balance with reports of missile engine tests and word that “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il could be dying.
And North Korea’s antics, whether real or concocted, also have brought Beijing and Washington closer together over fears of North Korean stability.
Speaking at the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong on Sept. 17, John Negroponte, U.S. deputy secretary of state, emphasized China’s participation in efforts to influence North Korea.
“We have encouraged China to provide responsible global leadership on critical issues such as ending North Korea’s nuclear program,” Negroponte said. “Our effort to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula through the six-party talks is a compelling example of cooperation among countries with historically tense, even hostile, relations. Although the process of denuclearization is far from complete, the six-party talks demonstrate the potential for regional cooperation to complement our existing bilateral alliances.”
However, talks now appear to have shifted from nuclear concerns to questions of regime stability. Strategic talks between the China and the United States began this month and “are designed as a bilateral forum for both sides to discuss scenarios for dealing with future possibilities such as North Korea after Kim Jong-il,” said C. Kenneth Quinones, who served as the U.S. State Department's North Korean affairs officer from 1992 to 1994, and now is living in Japan.
“Last year, the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo asked me to press the [U.S.] State Department to engage in strategy talks regarding what to do if Kim Jong-il dies. I am glad to see that such talks are under way.”
“Concern over stability would in fact bring the U.S. and China together for slightly different reasons,” said Jack Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute, Washington.
However, conflicting motivations are behind talks between the two sides, with China wanting to “secure as smooth of a transition as possible without causing or accelerating the process,” and an “imbedded wish to keep the U.S. role as minimal as possible,” said Pritchard, who served as U.S. ambassador and special envoy for negotiations with North Korea.
“The U.S. is concerned that the Chinese not overreact to U.S. actions,” he said. “Active cooperation is another matter altogether. Current events are conspiring to force more urgent discussions.”
The recent revelation of a missile engine test earlier this year at the new Dongchang-li base demonstrates Pyongyang’s intent on continuing its ballistic missile development.
Sources said the test, carried out on a Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile, violates the 2006 U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718 initiated after North Korea’s underground nuclear test.
However, the test does not surprise some analysts. “In fact, it seems a logical step for the DPRK [North Korea] to take,” said Joseph Bermudez, an independent specialist on the North Korean military and author of “The Armed Forces of North Korea.”
“There is no evidence to suggest that the DPRK has constrained its ballistic missile and space launch programs,” Bermudez said. “It is expected that, as the rocket engine component of the program develops, that they would use the new and more capable facility near Pongdong-ni.”
Kim: Alive, Dead, Incapacitated?
Concerns about recent reports of Kim’s health have also thrown a monkey wrench into denuclearization efforts. There are fears his death could spark a meltdown of the country.
If Kim is alive but incapacitated, the leadership could continue to use him as a figurehead, form a ruling council and legitimize it using Kim’s name.
However, a struggle could ensue inside the top leadership circle.
“As I see it, so long as Kim does not publicly declare his successor, a scramble for power after his death remains possible, particularly among his generals,” Quinones said. “I doubt they would install any of Kim’s three sons since none of them have any claim to legitimacy other than to be their father’s son. None have contributed anything to the nation.” If political chaos erupted, either South Korea or China could intervene militarily.
However, both have very different motives: South Korea’s desire for unification would face China’s desire to “sustain North Korea as a buffer zone,” Quinones said.
How the United States would manage such chaos is debatable. Neither China nor South Korea are likely to tolerate a unilateral military move by U.S. forces