The death of Kim Jong-il comes just as the United States was about to re-engage with North Korea, a plan now thrown into doubt because of the succession to Kim Jong-un.
Hours before Kim’s death, news leaked about an imminent large grain shipment to North Korea, seen as an olive branch to restart talks on the country’s nuclear program.
The United States is poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea this week, the first concrete accomplishment after months of behind-the-scenes diplomatic contacts between the two wartime enemies. An agreement by North Korea to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program will likely follow within days.
A broad outline of the emerging agreement has been made known to The Associated Press by people close to the negotiations.
Discussions have been taking place since summer in New York, Geneva and Beijing. They have already yielded agreements by North Korea to suspend nuclear and ballistic missile testing, readmit international nuclear inspectors expelled in 2009, and resume a dialogue between North Korea and South Korea, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of sensitivity of the negotiations.
In this sense, the timing of the elder Kim’s death could not have been worse. As a result, the US is likely to keep a wary eye on the situation, rather than make the scheduled announcement. The US has not provided food aid to North Korea in three years.
Kim Jong-un, 27, the youngest son of the late dictator, has been called “The Great Successor” on state run TV and will direct the funeral for his father. Both of these suggest he will become the new dictator, rather than his two elder playboy sons. Like most of the Kim family, little is known about Kim Jong-un; the world did not know what he looked like until 2010. So far, Kim Jong-un appears to be in control, but given the closed nature of North Korean society it’s impossible to know. But since Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008, he has been preparing the elite class of the country for his youngest son to succeed him.
It’s possible that the son will honor his father’s deals. It’s also possible that he knew nothing about this effort that the US could have potentially announced today, along with upcoming six-party talks. So because of the leader’s death, that deal will in all likelihood go into hibernation. Months of diplomacy go to waste. And the North Korean people continue to suffer. I recognize that, in this chaotic state, going ahead with the food aid would have meant risking that it all got locked away in storehouses away from the intended target. It is still a terrible bit of timing.