Nuclear tests hint N. Korea succession looms
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.