- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009


Former Vice President Al Gore is reportedly being dispatched to Pyongyang to appeal for the release of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who report for Mr. Gore’s Current TV media company. Meanwhile, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee said in a June 8 letter to the South Korean military that the reason for North Korea’s recent behavior is the unfolding succession drama. The two issues are closely related.

On June 2, it was reported that 26-year-old Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, would succeed his father as North Korean leader, probably this fall at the end of a 150-day “struggle” period. Shortly before the “struggle” began, Pyongyang engaged in a series of provocative acts. On April 5, North Korea illegally launched a long range missile under the guise of a satellite test. On April 16, Pyongyang expelled United Nations nuclear inspectors before taking steps to begin processing uranium at the Yongbyon nuclear facility. On May 25, as the struggle period reportedly began, the North tested a nuclear weapon and test-fired three short-range, ground-to-air and ground-to-ship ballistic missiles.

This reminds us of the 70-day campaign Kim Jong-il directed in 1974 as part of his transition to senior leadership. The struggle then was economic, and it resulted in Kim Jong-il being awarded the title of Hero of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a glory that is likely to be seen in the younger Mr. Kim’s future. The recent provocative acts are no doubt tied to the transition as a means of solidifying support for the regime among the party apparatus and giving the young Mr. Kim some needed bona fides for assuming the top post.

All aspects of the U.S.-North Korean relationship are likely to be framed by the drive to legitimate Kim Jong-un. That does not necessarily mean we are faced with months of continued belligerence. Mr. Kim’s handlers may well desire to show his leadership potential by a variety of means. If Kim Jong-un heads up the hostage negotiations with Mr. Gore, assuming he is the envoy, a favorable resolution could well enhance the young Mr. Kim’s stature. This could presage a new phase in the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang, but only time will tell. We counsel caution; there may be opportunities brewing.

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