When North Korean officials announced the death of their leader last week, the world responded with shock and alarm. After taking over for his father, who established the Communist nation in 1948, Kim Jong Il had ruled North Korea for 17 years with an iron fist. Now his son, 27-year-old Kim Jong-un has taken over the reclusive country, which boasts a powerful military and nuclear weapons.
Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on North Korea, recently spoke with U.S. News & World Report about the historic change of leadership and North Korea's relations with the United States.
Why are experts nervous about the new leadership in North Korea?
We don't know if the new leader of North Korea will be even more belligerent than his father as a way to show his toughness and shore up support within the military. Or whether he'll decide he's going to be North Korea's reformer and try to do what Vietnam and China did in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and really open up their countries, even as they hold on to the Communist mantra and preserve much of the previous ruling elite.
Are North Korea's nuclear weapons a threat to the United States?
At the moment the only kind of threat that North Korea could plausibly produce with nuclear weapons is probably just to South Korea. It has missiles that could technically reach Japan or perhaps even Guam. But it's not clear that its nuclear warheads could fit on those missiles. I'm actually dubious, and I'm not persuaded that North Korea could deliver a nuclear weapon against anyone unless it did it through an indirect means ...
like putting it on a ship and trying to sneak that ship into a harbor. Or trying to smuggle it in some other way, maybe overland through China into some other country. Or first hiding it in a commercial merchandise of a third party like China and then trying to sneak it into a country like Japan, South Korea, or the United States. So even though I don't believe they can put their warheads on missiles today, I think they could try to smuggle their nuclear weapons into an allied state or even the United States any time.
Is this a likely scenario?
I don't think they want to detonate their nuclear weapon so much as just have a deterrent. And for them to take preemptive action against us in some fashion would be extremely risky if they got caught. But having said that, the physical possibility remains and it's not out of the question.
What is the status of U.S.-North Korean relations?
Certainly poor. Our relationship with North Korea has really always been poor. The only exceptions to that would have been very brief moments in time. Arguably in 1994, when Jimmy Carter had a pretty successful visit to see Kim Il Sung and tried to negotiate a new nuclear deal, or tried to create the conditions whereby the Clinton administration could then do that. You may have had a few good moments there up until Kim Il Sung died just a few months later. And then when Madeline Albright visited Kim Jong Il around 1999, you could say that was a relatively promising moment. Although I continue to believe that visit was a mistake because I think it conferred too much legitimacy and support upon Kim and it should have been handled at a far more low-key level. She should not have been part of any public events, for example. But low and behold we now realize that even at that moment Kim was secretly developing an underground uranium enrichment facility to have another means towards a nuclear weapon.
Is there any space for optimism considering the change in North Korea's leadership?
There is a pragmatic way to proceed, which avoids having to depend on optimism, but just sort of presents North Korea with the relevant choices. And I think the basic concept here should be that we not only want to work towards the denuclearization of North Korea, although we can be gradual in how we get to that, but we also would like to see them reform like Vietnam and China have over the years. It would take years if not decades. But that's the kind of evolution we want to sketch out and indicate our interest in pursuing.
What would be the incentive for North Korea to change?
Indicate that if the North Koreans took some verifiable and meaningful steps to begin to denuclearize and reform, that we could help by limiting sanctions, by opening up some trade and investment, by over time providing economic assistance that could be verifiably employed in the transformation of the North Korean economy. In other words, you do it conditionally and step by step, but you nonetheless offer this kind of vision of a transformed relationship. And you do it together with Japan, South Korea, Russia, and China, the other participants in these negotiations. It is a vision, it is a goal, but it's not utopian in the sense it's been done before, this kind of reform. That's the kind of road map that we should lay out for the new North Korean leader as soon as we're comfortable doing so.