Friday, December 23, 2011 at 4:29 AM
As North Korea prepares for a new leader, China, South Korea and the other nations are recalibrating their policies and weighing new security concerns. The job is difficult because so little is known about Kim Jong Un, the son and presumed successor to Kim Jong Il.
The boundary between North and South Korea has been called the world's most dangerous border.
On Thursday, half a dozen South Korean soldiers stood at alert, facing off against one solitary North Korean soldier in khaki. The only unusual sign was the North Korean flag flying at half-staff.
Despite the political shock of Kim Jong-Il's sudden death, the military situation in the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, is unchanged, according to the spokesman for U.S. forces in Korea, Col. Jonathan Withington.
"All is calm," he says. "We're operating under normal armistice conditions. We've seen no unusual movements or activities."
Yet with the end of the Kim Jong Il era, North Korea's neighbors are recalibrating their policies and weighing new security concerns.
On Thursday, South Korea's conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, urged stability in the North. He underlined that South Korea does not feel animosity toward the North and said there was room for flexibility in ties. These words seem to indicate a softening of the South's stance, the emergence of a new policy toward the North.
"I think South Korea's policy is being reconstituted as we speak, and so is the world in terms of trying to deal with this very unusual state," says Jasper Kim, the author of a book about South Korea and a visiting scholar at Harvard. He describes Seoul's policy toward Pyongyang as being "in flux" and in a state of "slight confusion."
"The South Korean president is trying to get closer to North Korea, but not exactly close," he says. "This is a little bit in stark contrast to what his policy was in the beginning of his administration: that North Korea is a state that is not a friend to South Korea."
China Shows Support
While South Korea has been re-examining its ties, China has not been wasting time. Beijing has been busy honoring the late North Korean leader, despite a sometimes fractious relationship during his lifetime.
All of China's top nine leaders — from President Hu Jintao on down — have made the pilgrimage to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing. China was also the first country to offer condolences following Kim's death. Hahm Chaibong, the director of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, says he believes China is playing a geopolitical game.
"During Kim Jong Il's time, there was no love lost between the Chinese and North Koreans," Hahm says. "The Chinese seem to be making very, very clear that they're not going to make the same mistake they did with Kim Jong Il. They're going to make sure that Kim Jong Un feels grateful toward China for supporting him in a period of very difficult transition. That's one of the reasons why the Chinese are going out of their way to show respect and to assure Kim Jong Un."
Another sore point for the South is that it didn't know about Kim's death until it was announced two days later on North Korean state television. (It's unclear whether China was given early notice.) For many in South Korea, this represented a failure of South Korean intelligence and highlighted a glaring security weakness on the Korean peninsula.
"It just goes to show if the top brass in North Korea makes a decision to launch some kind of a major attack or something, we just won't know until it actually happens," Hahm says. "There's just going to be no way we are going to be able to take any kind of preventative measure, because we just won't know in time."
Despite the current calm at the DMZ, the geopolitical shakeout is only just beginning. An unknown 20-something is now at the very least nominally in charge of a nuclear-armed state. His father may have been predictable in his unpredictability. But what Kim Jong Un will do — or even what he's thinking — is something nobody can predict. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]
This article is filed in: World News, Home Page Top Stories, News
Khaled El-Masri says he was mistakenly flown to a secret prison in Afghanistan by the CIA.
Civilians Flee, Soldiers Dig In On Sudanese Frontier
The U.N. is threatening both Sudans with sanctions if they can't reverse their escalating feud.
How To Address France's New, Unmarried First Lady
France's new president was inaugurated Tuesday, and he's moving into the presidential palace with his longtime "companion." Host Michel Martin and the Beauty Shop ladies weigh in on political protocol when it comes to heads of state, politicians and their unmarried significant others.
At Trial, Serb Gen. Mladic Taunts Survivors With Throat-Cutting Gesture
Charged with 11 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, he remains defiant.
Atlanta Opens New International Terminal
Officials hope the facility means more international businesses will choose to locate in Georgia.
News updates from WGBH