North Korea: Kim Jong Il’s Death “A Watershed Moment”?

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Department of Defense Photo

A soldier protects South Korean villagers toiling in a field along the demilitarized zone

The fuse that is North Korea is sputtering again with the news that King Jon Il has died. “This is a watershed moment,” says Victor Cha, a former White House Korea expert now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Any expert would have told you that the most likely scenario for a collapse of the North Korean regime would be the sudden death of the North Korean leader,” adds Cha, a former member of the National Security Council. “We are now in that scenario.”

The North Koreans tested a short-range missile off their east coast Monday – the same day Jong Il’s death was announced — but it apparently was routine and unrelated to his passing Saturday. U.S. military leaders have noted no changes in the North since the death announcement and the apparent ascension of his son, Kim Jong Un, to govern the paranoid and heavily-armed “Hermit Kingdom.” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said  that there is no evidence of change “in North Korean behavior of a nature that would alarm us” while traveling in Germany.

The 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea have not changed their alert status, unlike the Seoul military, which has moved to a higher alert. “It is my expectation…that he will be the successor,” Dempsey said of Kim Jong Un. “We’ve gone to significant effort to understand, and I would only say at this point that he is young to be put in this position and we will have to see if it, in fact, is him and how he reacts to the burden of governance that he hasn’t had to deal with before.”

But after recent allegedly unprovoked attacks by  North Koreans on the South, no one in the West is assuming anything. “North Korea remains a serious threat,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during an October visit to Seoul. “Pyongyang has demonstrated its willingness to conduct provocations that target innocent lives. And North Korea continues to defy the international community as it enhances its nuclear weapons, its ballistic missile programs, and continues to engage in dangerous and destabilizing proliferation activities.”

The transition from the Dear Leader to a new leader — his son — complicates things. “Although little is known of Kim Jong Un, there is no evidence to suggest his decision-making calculus will differ significantly from his father’s or that his strategic priorities will change,” Army General James Thurman told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a written response to panel questions before his confirmation hearing as U.S. commander in South Korea last summer. “However, Kim Jong Un’s youth and inexperience increase the likelihood of miscalculation, as does the imperative for him to establish credibility with the military hardliners he needs to support succession. These factors make him less predictable in the near-term.”

The North Korean military is a strange amalgam that’s has some jazzy elements amid an old, Stalinist stew. Its strong points are “missile technology, continued development of a nuclear capability, and their special operating forces,” U.S. Army General Walter L. “Skip” Sharp, commander of all U.S. troops in South Korea, said before he retired in July. “The rest of the military is very old, but large, large numbers.”

Sharp isn’t waiting for a bolt out of the blue strike by Pyongyang. “I think the North Koreans probably realize that they could not win in a normal conventional all-out attack to reunify the peninsula by force,” he said. “I think they fully realize that with the ROK [Republic of Korea, i.e., South Korean] capability and our capability, that’s a non-starter.”

Panetta said the repeated cycles of negotiation, agreements and collapse of such agreements between Washington and the North – designed to convince Pyongyang that nuclear weapons are not a smart path to prosperity or power on the peninsula – need to end. “There is either going to be an accommodation where they decide to make the right decisions with regards to their future and join the international family of nations, and try to provide better opportunities and basic freedoms for their people,” he said during his stop in Seoul Oct. 27. “Or, if they continue these provocations, then obviously, you know, that’s going to lead to the possibility of escalation and, you know, confrontation.”

The coming days will prove critical, as Jong Un tries to cement his standing as the legitimate heir to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. But for now, former National Security Council staffer Cha says, all Washington can really do is wait. “No military actions are warranted at the moment,” he says, “other than to watch and ensure stability on the peninsula and protection of the United States and the Republic of Korea.”