Nu­clear tests hint N. Korea suc­ces­sion looms

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY SARA A. CARTER AND AN­DREW SAL­MON

North Korea’s sec­ond test of an atomic bomb on May 25 prompted spec­u­la­tion by an­a­lysts and U.S. mil­i­tary ex­perts that an ail­ing Kim Jong-il is re­ly­ing on hard-line gen­er­als to pre­pare for suc­ces­sion — re­port­edly to one of three sons.

Hours af­ter the un­der­ground ex­plo­sion, the North launched three bal­lis­tic mis­siles that are ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing nu­clear war­heads to all of South Korea and much of Ja­pan.

In test­ing a nu­clear weapon, North Korea flouted more than a decade of ef­for ts by the United States, South Korea and other na­tions in the re­gion to es­tab­lish a quasi-nor­mal re­la­tion­ship with a na­tion known for its iso­la­tion even as mil­lions die of mal­nu­tri­tion.

Suc­ces­sive ship­ments of food, oil and other eco­nomic aid, fol­lowed by threats of eco­nomic sanc­tions, have cre­ated a sit­u­a­tion in which bel­liger­ent acts such as th­ese tests have of­ten elicited more of­fers of eco­nomic aid.

But the ac­tions may have moved the North’s bel­liger­ence to a new level, said Michael Breen, a Seoul-based an­a­lyst and au­thor of a bi­og­ra­phy of Kim Jong-il.

“This ap­pears to be more than the usual North Korean an­tics and sug­gests all may not be well in Py­ongyang,” Mr. Breen said.

Jim Walsh, a Korea spe­cial­ist at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, said the tests plus last month’s test of a mul­ti­stage rocket are tied to the is­sue of suc­ces­sion.

Kim Jong-il in­her­ited power when his fa­ther, North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, died in 1994. In do­ing so, he es­tab­lished the first dy­nasty in the com­mu­nist world.

Since Mr. Kim re­port­edly suf­fered a stroke last year, spec­u­la­tion has cen­tered on his three sons, one of whom is ex­pected to even­tu­ally take over.

With suc­ces­sion in mind, “the mil­i­tary mem­bers of the [North Korean] Na­tional De­fense Com­mit­tee are ex­ert­ing them­selves,” Mr. Walsh said.

Mr. Walsh also noted that China, North Korea’s only re­main­ing ally and a veto-wield­ing mem­ber of the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, said it was “res­o­lutely op­posed” to the test.

The crit­i­cism was un­usual for China, which has been the strong­est sup­porter of the six­na­tion nu­clear talks be­gun dur­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Mr. Walsh said, how­ever, that China was un­likely to push too hard when the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil con­sid­ers ad­di­tional sanc­tions.

“It doesn’t want to squeeze the egg when it may be al­ready cracked and there may be a tran­si­tion afoot.”

The power of the un­der­ground ex­plo­sion re­mained in ques­tion, with Rus­sia claim­ing the North had achieved an ex­plo­sion com­pa­ra­ble to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Na­gasaki — in the 10-to 20-kilo­ton range.

But af­ter study­ing seis­mic data and other in­tel­li­gence, a se­nior White House of­fi­cial is­sued a state­ment in­di­cat­ing that the ex­plo­sion was much smaller.

“The char­ac­ter­is­tics sug­gest a man-made event with an ex­plo­sive yield of ap­prox­i­mately a few kilo­tons [of] TNT. Ad­di­tional anal­y­sis will con­tinue for the next sev­eral days,” said the offi- cial, who could not be cited by name be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to speak for at­tri­bu­tion.

The ini­tial White House anal­y­sis in­di­cates that the test was only slightly more pow­er­ful than North Korea’s first atomic ex­plo­sion in Oc­to­ber 2006.

The ex­plo­sion was de­tected at about 10 a.m. lo­cal time. Shortly af­ter­ward, the of­fi­cial Korean Cen­tral News Agency con­firmed the test, say­ing it was in­tended to “bol­ster its nu­clear de­ter­rent for self-de­fense.”

Re­tired Spe­cial Forces Lt. Col. Gor­don Cucullu, an an­a­lyst and au­thor who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on North Korea, warned that the U.S., the United Na­tions and oth­ers cre­ated a per­verse set of in­cen­tives.

The North, he said, is con­vinced that it gets what it wants by main­tain­ing this sort of pres­sure on the West, Col. Cucullu said.

“As a con­se­quence, it’s like a dog,” he said. “If you feed him ev­ery time he pees on the rug, then he’ll con­tinue to pee on the rug. There’s no rea­son for Kim Jong-il not to pee on our rug.”

The test also raises con­cerns over pro­lif­er­a­tion. The United States has ac­cused North Korea of sup­ply­ing mis­siles and mis­sile tech­nol­ogy to Iran and nu­clear tech­nol­ogy to Syria.

“It is not just the di­men­sion of what they have done, but the tempo they are pil­ing on th­ese es­ca­la­tions that is go­ing to worry even the Chi­nese and Rus­sians,” said Brian My­ers, a North Korea an­a­lyst at Dongseo Uni­ver­sity in South Korea.

“Will they adopt the same easy­go­ing stance they adopted af­ter April 5?” he asked, re­fer­ring to last month’s mis­sile test. “I don’t think they can.”

Den­nis Wilder, se­nior di­rec­tor for East Asia on the Bush White House Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, said the nu­clear test re­flected North Korea’s at­tempt to shift the agenda of any fu­ture ne­go­ti­a­tions to arms con­trol in­stead of de­nu­cle­ariza­tion.

“If you were in arms con­trol ne­go­ti­a­tions, you would be talk­ing about lim­it­ing pro­lif­er­a­tion as op­posed to shut­ter­ing the en­tire pro­gram,” Mr. Wilder said.

Richard Bush, a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and a for­mer na­tional in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer for East Asia, said the test could be ex­plained in part by North Korea’s de­sire to look tough dur­ing a del­i­cate tran­si­tion from Mr. Kim’s lead­er­ship to that of his son.

The Wall Street Jour­nal re­ported re­cently that Mr. Kim’s brother-in-law, Jang Seong-taek, is be­ing groomed as a “re­gent” for Kim fam­ily in­ter­ests to pos­si­bly pave the way for the Korean leader’s third son, Kim Jong-un, to take power. The elder Mr. Kim is widely re­ported to have suf­fered a stroke in Au­gust.

“This may be con­nected with the suc­ces­sion in ways we don’t un­der­stand,” Mr. Bush said. “Is Kim Jong-il try­ing to en­sure sup­port for his son [in the mil­i­tary] by mov­ing for­ward with nu­clear and mis­sile test­ing?” Mr. Bush asked rhetor­i­cally.

His an­swer: North Korea is the most opaque regime on the planet, and it is next to im­pos­si­ble to di­vine the in­ten­tions and think­ing of its leaders.

Bar­bara Slavin and Eli Lake con­trib­uted to this re­port from Wash­ing­ton. An­drew Sal­mon re­ported from Seoul.


South Korean pro­test­ers in Seoul burn a mock North Korean nu­clear mis­sile and pho­tos of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on May 25 dur­ing a rally against the North’s de­fi­ant nu­clear test.

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