By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009
SEOUL, Feb. 20 -- A succession struggle appears to be underway in North Korea and is hampering efforts to restart talks on its nuclear program, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday.
In unusually direct comments, Clinton said that if North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died, there was the prospect of heightened tensions in Northeast Asia.
"There is an increasing amount of pressure because if there is succession, even if it is a peaceful succession, that creates even more uncertainty, and it also may encourage behaviors that are even more provocative as a way to consolidate power within the society," Clinton told reporters on the flight to the South Korean capital after a one-day stop in Indonesia.
In August, when Kim failed to appear at North Korea's 60th-anniversary parade, U.S. intelligence officials said they believed Kim had suffered a stroke -- an assertion that North Korean news media vehemently denied as a cruel hoax. Kim did not reappear in public view until recently, and U.S. officials continue to believe he suffered some sort of medical malady.
Clinton said she would seek advice from South Korean and Chinese officials about their latest intelligence on the power dynamics in North Korea.
"Everybody is trying to read the tea leaves as to what is happening and what is likely to occur, and there is a lot of guessing going on," Clinton said, adding that she "will spend a lot of time trying to determine from the South Koreans and the Chinese what their information is" about Kim.
There have been many signs of political uncertainty in North Korea, including a report by its official news agency that Kim fired his defense minister. In recent weeks, North Korea has declared null and void a series of agreements with South Korea, while its state media have unleashed angry blasts at the South Korean government, saying the two countries are close to war. There are also increasing signs that North Korea is preparing to test a long-range missile, which Japan and South Korea would consider highly provocative.
North Korea's notoriously prickly government, in fact, may take umbrage at open discussion by a senior U.S. official about the replacement of its revered leader. Clinton's focus on the uncertainty about Kim's grip on power suggests it is a matter of deep concern in some parts of the Obama administration. Clinton noted that the doubts about Kim's control had created "a lot of worries" in South Korea.
Clinton's concern, however, contrasts with that of National Intelligence Director Dennis C. Blair, who told Congress last week that Kim still appears to be in control and is "making key decisions." Kim's recent public activities "suggest his health has improved significantly," Blair told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "The state's control apparatus by all accounts remains strong, sustaining dismal conditions of human rights in North Korea."
At a joint news conference Friday morning with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, Clinton emphasized that "it is clear we are dealing with the government that exists right now." She said she was not concerned that North Korea would react negatively to her remarks. "All one has to do is read the press. The open press is filled with such conversations," she said. "This is not some kind of classified matter." Yu said the succession question was an important issue for both South Korea and the United States. "We have our eye on the situation," he said.
Clinton, at the news conference, also announced the appointment of former U.S. ambassador Stephen W. Bosworth as special representative for North Korea policy. Bosworth, dean of Tuft University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, will take on the high-profile negotiating role now held by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, who will be named ambassador to Iraq. Clinton said Bosworth will report to her and President Obama.
Kim took control in 1994, after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the xenophobic state. Kim Jong Il, who presided over a famine in the mid-1990s that left 2 million dead, has four children, but only the youngest son, Kim Jong Woon, 25, appears to be a possible candidate to succeed his father. Last month, a South Korean report said Kim Jong Woon had been designated as the successor, but that has not been confirmed.
Kim Jong Il's eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, 37, appears to have lost favor after he was caught in 2001 trying to enter Japan on a fake passport, saying he wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland.
A brother-in-law, Chang Sung Taek, briefly gained stature before being purged in 2004, but in 2006 he was rehabilitated and later named to a senior post overseeing internal security. Under one scenario, Chang could run the country while Kim Jong Woon was groomed.
Clinton said she would push to restart the stalled six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear programs. "Our goal is to try to come up with a strategy that is effective at influencing the behavior of the North Koreans at a time when the whole leadership situation is unclear," she said.
Clinton also said she would seek to add North Korea's ballistic missile program as a topic to be discussed at the six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear programs, either within the current negotiations or as an adjunct. She said that Pyongyang's missile program "was of great concern" but noted that North Korea has resisted efforts to include missiles in the nuclear talks.