Two days after North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died in a train in his country, South Korean authorities still knew nothing about it. Meanwhile, US officials seemed at a loss, with the Department of State at first merely acknowledging that press reports had mentioned his death.
The South Korean and US intelligence services’ inability to pick up any sign of what had happened attests to the North Korean regime’s opaque character, but also to their own deficiencies. US planes and satellites watch North Korea day and night, and the most sensitive intelligence-gathering equipment covers the frontier between the two Koreas. Nonetheless, we know very little of that country, because all vital information is restricted to a small group of leaders obsessed with secrecy.
The leadership change is occurring at the worst possible time. It is known that Chinese leaders had hoped that Kim Jong-il would survive long enough to consolidate support among the country’s various factions for the succession of his son, Kim Jong-un.
All of the symbolic attributes of power have been transferred to Kim Jong-un — reflected in his official position in the funeral ceremonies, his presidency of the Military Commission and his assumption of the ruling party’s highest rank — with remarkable speed. However, such trappings will not make the transition process any easier for a young man of less than 30 in a society where veteran military chiefs retain so much power.
The economic situation, which is still very precarious, with many people living close to starvation, constitutes another key challenge. Two examples suffice to illustrate the impact: The price of rice has tripled, while consumption of electricity is down by two-thirds from two decades ago.
My personal memories of North Korea, now almost 10 years old, are of a poor and depressed country. Pyongyang, the capital, was dark and deserted, illuminated by the cavalcade taking us from the official housing to the opera house, only to return to darkness behind us. Kim Jong-il was greeted with the same fervor when he entered the opera house that today marks public mourning of his death.
My trip took place in April 2002, a somewhat optimistic time. The EU had joined an agreement initiated by the two Koreas and the US within the Korean Energy Development Organization program, the objective being to persuade North Korea to freeze and later dismantle its nuclear program. In exchange, two light-water nuclear reactors would be built to generate electric energy, and 500,000 tonnes of oil would be supplied annually until the first reactor began operating. In turn, the EU initiated an extensive humanitarian aid project. The talks with Kim Jong-il and his collaborators seemed promising.
Unfortunately, the agreement did not last long. In 2003, North Korea abandoned the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. From that moment, all optimism was lost, until contacts were subsequently reinitiated in a complex six-party format — China, Russia, the US, Japan and the two Koreas — that continued, with ups and downs, until the end of 2007. Since the maritime incidents of 2009 and 2010, in which North Korean forces attacked South Korean assets, there has been virtually no contact at all between the two sides.
Given North Korea’s behavior over the last decade, the sudden change of leadership increases the threat of unexpected incidents. To limit the risk, it is essential to keep relations with China as transparent as possible. It is China that has the most direct contact with North Korea and that could best catalyze resumption of the six-party talks.