What’s Next for Korea?

Fletcher Dean Stephen Bosworth, former U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, considers the implications of Kim Jong Il’s death
Kim Jong Il at a fruit farm in North Korea
Kim Jong Il, center, inspects a fruit farm in Toksong, North Korea, in this undated photo. “I am not optimistic about reform,” says Stephen Bosworth. Photo: AP/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service
December 19, 2011

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The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il on Dec. 17 raises questions about that country’s future and its relationships with its neighbors and with the United States. Jong Il’s youngest son, Kim Jong Un, apparently will succeed his father. Whether he will continue his father’s policies or perhaps be open to reform are among the unknowns.

Stephen Bosworth, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, served as U.S. special representative for North Korea policy from March 2009 to October 2011. He was U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1997 to 2001, and former ambassador to the Philippines and Tunisia. From 1995 to 1997, he was the executive director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization.

Bosworth spent a busy day on Monday, the day after Jong Il’s death was announced, fielding media questions from NPR, Bloomberg News and many other outlets.

Tufts Now: Will Kim Jong Un be the same kind of ruler his father was?

Bosworth: I think what we’ll see is an evolution of a trend from the last couple of decades. Jong Il was an authoritarian leader, but in contrast to his father, Kim Il Sung, [whom he succeeded] Jong Il did not appear to have the same kind of power. There has been a trend toward a more collective authority, and it will continue and even potentially accelerate.

Will the military be more in charge?

The military has never not been in charge. It really is a collective ruling by party officials and the Kim family dynasty.

Is there a chance Kim Jong Un, who was educated in Switzerland, might be more willing to open up the country and initiate reforms?

I am not optimistic about reform. He may be more flexible, but at this point we just don’t know, and I’m reluctant to make a prediction.

Kim Jong Il had years to prepare before succeeding his father. Why was this succession done more quickly? Shouldn’t one of the older sons have been next in line?

I think a successor was not immediately identifiable. Choosing the first son would have been awkward, because his mother and father weren’t married. The father didn’t have confidence his second son was up to the job.

Is Kim Jong Un up to the job?

No one knows. He’s supported by the overall power structure, but he’s very inexperienced.

North Korea launched short-range missiles on Monday. Why?

It was a test firing, and I think it was to show they still have teeth. They do this periodically, but they didn’t just happen to do it.

Do you see anything really changing in North Korea?

I wish I could say I did. I don’t expect any dramatic changes in its relationships with its neighbors. We would love to see stability, with an evolution toward integration in the region. There could be some differences, but this is not the Arab Spring.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

 

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