December 23rd, 2011
04:07 PM ET

U.S. to North Korea: We are waiting

By Elise Labott

In some ways, Kim Jong Il's death could not have come at a worse time for the United States.

Washington was seeing hopeful signs in a carefully orchestrated plan by the administration to engage the North Korean leadership.  A success in bringing North Korea back to talking about its nuclear program would have given President Obama another foreign policy success to tout as he seeks re-election.

The initial meetings between the two sides, one as recently as last week, were promising. In offering some new food assistance to Pyongyang, the United States was reasonably assured the North would suspend its uranium enrichment program and resume operations to recover the remains of American soldiers missing in action from the Korean War.

American officials were hopeful that these modest steps would lead to a resumption of the long-stalled Six Party Talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

But this potential rapprochement has come to a screeching halt, at least while the North Korean people are engaged in their prerequisite mourning for the Dear Leader, and likely beyond that as the new North Korean leadership sorts out its new hierarchy.

Naturally, the biggest question is whether Kim Jong Un, the 20-something basketball sneaker-wearing son and heir apparent of the deceased leader, can step decisively into his father's shoes.

Reading the tea leaves about the reclusive North Korean leadership in the wake of Kim Jong Il's death, however, will be nothing short of Kremlinology for the 21st century.  They don't call North Korea the "hermit kingdom" for nothing.

In the short term, the Obama administration is somewhat paralyzed. If it reaches out too quickly to embrace the "kid," as some U.S. officials call him, it can create fissures between him and the North Korean military, whose ranks have been anti-American and solidly against engagement with the outside world.

If Washington tries to spread its wings and reach out to others in the country, it can risk emasculating the new leader as he tries to consolidate his power base.

In reality, the United States alone will not make or break Kim Jong Un. His role in the family business will rest in large part on his ability to navigate potential power struggles, both with the military and with his aunt and her husband, Jang Song Thaek, who was elevated in the government last year and is expected to act as a caretaker of sorts until the younger Kim can take the reins.

But officials realize how the Obama administration plays its hand over the coming weeks and months can have a direct impact on the actions of the new government and how those actions affect America's national security interests.

Will the United States, along with its close ally South Korea, go into a defensive crouch, becoming passive and standoffish, causing the North Koreans to hunker down? Or will Washington explore openings with new leaders at an early date in pursuit of its many interests, including security, denuclearization, human rights and the North's relations with Seoul?

Obama's aides on North Korea represent the spectrum from realism to idealism.

The idealists are thinking North Korea is on the verge of its own Arab Spring, where its walls of tyranny are about to come crumbling down.

These officials believe Kim Jong Il's death has presented the kind of momentous once-in-a-generation moment that demands the United States do something big. White papers are flying through administration in-boxes like spit balls suggesting policy options, most of which officials acknowledge won't see the light of day.

But those pesky realists know this will take time, and are urging Obama not to over-think the potential impact and not to change the game plan too dramatically. While there will be a new leadership team, the realists know the North Korean "system" as a whole will likely remain unchanged for some time to come.

Despite the Swiss education of the "kid," North Korea is not Egypt or Tunisia. And one look at Bashar al-Assad, who was a London-trained ophthalmologist, and Saif Ghadafi, who studied in Vienna, show exposure to the West for dictators' offspring doesn't mean the younger generation will embrace all the West embodies.

Still, the changes taking place in North Korea do present an opportunity. During the transition, the United States expects North Korea to govern by committee. And those in the administration who have consistently argued that U.S. interests lie in engagement with Pyongyang believe it is now more important than ever to strengthen the elements within the country who are open to, if not eager for, reform.

It appears this camp has prevailed. A statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the North Korean people, carefully crafted during hours of inter-agency meetings, encourages the new North Korean leaders to "guide their nation on the path to peace."  But it also sends a not-so-subtle message that the United States stands ready to re-engage and help the North Koreans on that path when they are ready.

Officials say that the administration has indeed taken the strategic decision to try to seize the opportunity that has arisen from Kim Jong Il's death by testing the waters of engagement, while staying true to U.S. goals and principles.

"The wide default setting," in the words of one senior official, "is to keep moving forward."

Still, officials are cautious. Initial signals from the North are encouraging, but not necessarily telling. U.S. and North Korean officials have had some initial contacts in the wake of Kim's death about the pending agreement on food assistance, but officials say they aren't even sure if Pyongyang's talking points were drafted before the Dear Leader's death or in the hours immediately following it. Regardless, they do not reflect a policy direction under the new leadership.

U.S. officials will be watching closely to see how things play out over the next week, including how much the young Kim Jong Un appears in public.  If he continues to be seen frequently, that will be taken as a good sign of his confidence and will signal the country is stable. If he remains in the shadows, there will be concerns a power struggle is under way.

The United States will also be looking to see how the military responds over the coming days. At the first sign of instability, everyone will start worrying about what happens to North Korea's nuclear arsenal.

Coordination among U.S. partners in the region will also be key. The United States has been in lockstep with South Korea for some time on contingency plans for the transition, but until now China, arguably the country with the most information about and influence on North Korea, wouldn't go there for fear of appearing to be orchestrating the regime's collapse.

Political dynamics in the region will be as much of a wild card this year as North Korea's mysterious transition.  South Korea, Russia and the United States each will undergo elections of their own. And Japan's fluid political situation has shown that a new prime minister could arise in Tokyo at anytime.  Even the Chinese leadership will undergo a leadership transition late next year.

Every member of the Six Party Talks could potentially have a new regime, which injects an even higher degree of unpredictability into the situation with North Korea.

These new governments can offer flexibility and an opportunity to make adjustments. In the case of South Korea, a left-of-center government could increase engagement with Pyongyang, along the lines of former President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy."

But in the United States, it could mean a harder line. Although the Republican candidates haven't offered clear policy prescriptions for how they would deal with North Korea's new leadership, a GOP president is unlikely to continue with the same type of engagement espoused by Obama.

A hands-off approach by the United States, however, could be dangerous. North Korea is ever longing for attention from the United States, and a prolonged period without meaningful engagement from Washington could give the new leadership an incentive to do all sorts of things America doesn't like - starting with making, selling and even testing more nuclear weapons.

soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. Heather

    Presently, N. Korea would never have an Arab Spring unless it was a staged front for democracy.

    January 9, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Reply
  2. Davehuckleberry

    North Korea has its nukes largely because the USA thought North Korea was going to take part in the talks but that was just a way to delay action against North Korea while they developed their nuclear weapons. And now we have a fat faced young kid in charge of nukes and a million man strong military. That's scary.

    January 7, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Reply
  3. keb carerra

    There will be no negotiations about nukes . Everyone now knows what happens when you give up the only threat to the US. Look at Libya today , the vacancy of one despot leaves a void to be filled by more terror and the war continues fueling the demand here in the US of our #1 export , weapons . Check out the news of the ship Thor Liberty seized in Finland bound for South Korea with 69 Patriot missiles on Dec. 15. Why can't you find that on CNN ? Or did I just miss that story.

    January 1, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  4. sjdsh

    LOL,Get rid of nuclear deterrent to US??Riiiiight....Anywhooo,China provides bulk of their 'food aid'.

    December 28, 2011 at 10:49 am | Reply
  5. ***Dude***

    Move then

    December 27, 2011 at 3:58 am | Reply
  6. Kerry

    One can only hope that the old f*arts in power die off there and a younger, more ‘enlightened', generation takes it place. Otherwise they will continue to be the land that time forgot, regardless of anything the world leaders might do.

    December 25, 2011 at 11:08 am | Reply
    • AB

      That country is thoroughly brainwashed...Nothing to do with the old generation...they all believe Kim Jong-IL was god incarnate..see this...

      January 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply
    • David Hendricks

      better if they die off soon as the world sure does not need their threats for the next fifty years, Obama is wrong in pledging food aid to North Korea, They must make the offers to entice involvement of the USA in negoations. Why in all instances do we use diplomacy until the other side accomplishes what they desire? Both parties have played the game with North Korea for many years the people in the USA are tired of this bull. Diplomacy is great if there is enough sense on both sides to make a deal, however we truly dont fold the cards. David Hendricks

      April 17, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  7. Bill

    I say let's give them a chance to "grow up" with this new lil'fat boy (shouldn't say that, I know) . They're able to see all their neighbors who have made moves towards more modern, western ways and a concilliatory tone get ahead and start being able to feed themselves, etc. How much worse can it really get ...we're ready either way.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:29 am | Reply
  8. rickrockin

    why do we have to deal with North Korea at all? Let china deal with them. Its china that props them up. So if they get out of hand we should blame the chinese. Of course we can never attack north korea because of china. Anyways its all been fruitless they still made their nuclear bombs and the U.S. did nothing but feed their North Koran Army with the food aid!! How ironic.

    December 25, 2011 at 7:13 am | Reply
    • AB

      North Korea has no food for its people and civilians. They have enough for their military. Their society is based on the juche philosophy and military first..All their weapons are indigenously made..

      January 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
    • Jimmyk

      We have to deal with North Korea because we're technically still at war with them since we are allied with South Korea.

      This is what happens when the History channel stops talking about history and instead airs shows about lumberjacks and pawnbrokers.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
      • PRW

        Technically, we were never at war with them. Only congress can declare war and it never did. It was a "police action".

        January 20, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  9. Jimmy Dean

    Kevin you're as dumb as a box of rocks LOL

    December 25, 2011 at 2:11 am | Reply
  10. kevin

    Rather than pussyfooting around with this guy they should just surround the country with aircraft and naval subs and aircraft carrier and give him an ultimatum, stop what your doing or face the consequence and you have 48hrs to think about it, and by the way if we see even one missle being readied then we nuke your whole country. The people live in miisery anyways so what do they have to loose?. This is the true reflection of how China. None of them can be trusted.

    December 24, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Reply
    • I am the .45

      Yes Kevin. Let's pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and just go straight to N. Korea. Let's be the bullies we so devoutly hunt. Did you even read what you said? Do you have any clue the kind of global shockwave that would send out to all other countries? We can't just "nuke" them. "None of them can be trusted." How insanely close minded can you be? Do you really think if one is bad, they all are bad? If that's your logic, it can be applied world over. So try again champ.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:11 am | Reply
      • stupidcomments

        you are so right, NOT, we are the bullies, hold up 1 hand and put up a finger for every time another countries army has landed on our soil and taken over cities. I got zero what about you, we did have japan invade our military, and we had people who lived here as americans to plan deaths, but we were never invaded. And yet from the beginning- we wipe out the indian who lived one with the earth because they stood in our way, we made slaves of people for we are the rich, and now we stick our nose in every countrys business and wonder why wars start, but justify it by saying we are bringing them peace. Our own government made the laws that make the rich richer, and everyone else poor, we allow business to move overseas and yet sell the same prouducts here to people who now have no jobs. we have our kids struggle to pay for school for which they will pay forever and get a job at low wages compared to the people on the other side of a tv screen who make nothing we use in our everyday lives yet are all millionairs. Ya it a great country. after you talk to the 99% who arent rich yet work real jobs and struggle then tell me something great.

        December 26, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • AB

      Do you realize that North Korea in 2 years will have ICBMs capable of reaching any city here in the US? Do you also realize that right now they have the potential to destroy the entire 100000 odd Us servicemen in south korea? They are impoverished socially..yes..but they have enough food for their military and enough weaponry to be dangerous

      January 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Reply
  11. Hello

    American Tax payer.with checkbook out and fancy White House souvenir pen..

    Ok Kim Clown Clone.. how much???... how much??? How much will you take to not nuke the world?


    humm.. that was 100,000 times of what your papa Kim Clown Clone wanted.. perhaps you need to ask China to add that to our 15 trillion we ALREADY owe them...

    December 24, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Reply







    December 24, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Reply
    • kevin

      Wow, you need medication and fast before we loose you to this awful disease.

      December 24, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Reply

      Hmmm....I think I got through the first minute and a half of this....I'm thinking medication is definitely in order before you become a "home grown" terrorist...WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH THE ARTICLE??!!??

      December 27, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Reply
      • Lady~Dragon

        ....good question......

        December 28, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Fanta Pants

      You spent how long putting this rambling incoherent story together? You need to spend your time in therapy and away from communication devices.

      December 27, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Reply
    • Lady


      It's too early in the A.M. for you to be putting crack in your's not good for you.

      December 28, 2011 at 10:09 am | Reply
  13. Monkey

    Any one who has lived in America and claims to hate it did not deserve to live there in the first place. Where in the world would you prefer to live? Go on, take your time.

    December 24, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Reply
    • Hello

      Monkey.. English.. not you first language?... right?

      December 24, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Reply
    • kevin

      HELLO, your the moron picking on someone over their language. Is that all you got little puff of smoke.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Reply
  14. udontknowme

    maybe he will let old NK die with his dad and turn over a new leaf for his country. the alternative is a slow death of north korea

    December 24, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  15. al

    America ..lived here all my life and now i hate this country .
    it really turned into something horrible ,,

    December 24, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Reply
    • Hello

      aaaahh What America? Thats been gone a long time... use to be in the history books..but that was declared racist.

      I would have responded in Spanish, Chinese or muzzy talk . but I am one of the few remaining tax payers.
      spending all my time working azz off to pay taxes.. no time to learn invader's languages//..

      December 24, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Reply
    • kevin

      And your moving to where so I can have your parking spot.

      December 24, 2011 at 10:36 pm | Reply
    • Jimmy Dean

      ever heard of the expression: love it or leave it? i think it's time you leave it then buddy

      December 25, 2011 at 2:20 am | Reply
  16. Nadim

    This is a joke. The son will play the same games as the father. He just wants our money. When will we ever learn to get out of other countries policies. Let's worry about ours.

    December 24, 2011 at 6:41 am | Reply
    • AB

      The US has not funded North Korea. China has and also Russia is funding them...I also heard the Indians are supplying food through the UN food program...North Korea is dangerous

      January 3, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Reply
  17. Doctor Strangelove


    December 23, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Reply
    • Hello

      that will be easy to find them.. the only place around that will have lights on at night.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Reply

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