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North Korea Expert Says Country's Leadership Won't Hold Up

North Korea roundtable

North Korean experts (from left) Paul Pillar, Michael Green, Ji-Young Lee and Victor Cha discussed the likely outcomes of the country's recent change in leadership.

January 19, 2012 – One of Georgetown’s most prominent experts on North Korea believes the country’s change in leadership will translate into significant changes in how it deals with the rest of the world.

The country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, unexpectedly died this past December and his son, Kim Jong-un, who is reportedly in his late 20s, took his place.

“There’s been a very rigorous debate in the expert community as well as the policy community about what the future looks like,” said Victor Cha, Georgetown’s director of Asian Studies, during a panel discussion yesterday. “Essentially we have some optimists and some pessimists. … Bottom line for the optimists is that there is nothing new here. “[They think] we’re in for a lot more of the same old North Korean behavior.”

Difficult to Continue

“On the other hand there are pessimists who see this as a shock to the system,” added Cha, the university’s D.S. Song-KF Endowed Chair in Government. “Personally I tend to be more of a pessimist. I think it is going to be very hard for this system to continue the way it is.”

Georgetown’s Asian Studies Program, the Center for Peace and Security Studies and the Mortara Center for International Studies sponsored the discussion.

Panelists also included Michael Green, associate professor of international relations in the School of Foreign Service and senior adviser for the Center for Strategic & International Studies; Paul Pillar, director of graduate studies at Georgetown’s Center for Peace and Security Studies; and Ji-Young Lee, an assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University.

Delicate Game

“It's one thing to step into a succession that has already been arranged, and it’s another thing to have to manage this process,” Green said. “When do you hard line? When do you soft line? When do you advance the nuclear weapons program and make nice with the neighbors to try and get concessions? That's a pretty delicate game that Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung had decades to perfect.”

Pillar pointed out that one of the biggest handicaps facing U.S. intelligence agencies is the lack of an embassy in North Korea.

North Korea recently indicated it might be willing to freeze its uranium-enrichment program in exchange for the United States suspending sanctions and resuming food aid.

“Kim Jong-un is going to have to manage this process,” Green said. “Whether or not he can do this will be a test for the regime and could help decide whether the succession is successful.”

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