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North Korea's future

Seattle Times

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 21 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il returns a salute to Korean People's Army soldiers marching in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang to mark the 60th anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea, 10 October 2005.

Kcna Via Korean News Service,AFP, Getty Images

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The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il speeds up the choreography of despotic succession as the youngest son of the "Dear Leader" is installed to run the family business.

Kim Jong Un is hustling to secure his position of power. Reports suggest he was already shuffling the upper ranks of the military with younger officers, who now owe their allegiance to him.

The concern is the transition of power to an unknown twenty-something will inspire irrational acts by the North Korean military, so the new leader appears tough.

Two North Korean attacks in fall 2010 — the sinking of a South Korean naval ship and the shelling of an island — have been seen as an early introduction of Kim Jong Un by his ailing father, according to University of Washington Prof. Clark Sorensen, director of the Center for Korean Studies at the Jackson School.

Between those two attacks, Kim Jong Il promoted his son to the rank of four-star general. The elder Kim had suffered a stroke two years earlier, and the transition of power had begun.

What happens next? Safe to say the essential puzzlement is subject to great speculation at the highest diplomatic levels in the U.S. State Department and in China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

The northern half of the peninsula remains a murky, chaotic place, with a robust military and a population subject to episodes of starvation. Sorensen points out the Dear Leader presided with iron-fisted rule through a famine in 1990s that claimed 600,000 lives. Severe food shortages persist.

Another round of humanitarian food aid is under consideration by the U.S. via five American nongovernmental organizations, including Mercy Corps and World Vision, who helped in 2008-2009. The U.N. may also be involved again.

The food aid should proceed without expectations of political or policy quid pro quos.

The NGOs returned this year to survey the need. A hard winter and floods had ravaged North Korea's already fragile agriculture capacity.

Resumption of food aid by the U.S. sends its own message of an openness to change, by all sides.

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