U.S. officials treaded carefully Monday in responding to Kim Jong-il’s death amid concerns that the North Korean dictator’s demise could trigger a succession struggle that would deepen uncertainty over the communist nation’s nuclear arsenal.
North Korea test-fired two short-range missiles Monday just hours after announcing Mr. Kim’s death. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. is “in close touch” with other powers in the region monitoring the situation.
“We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea, as well as in ensuring regional peace and stability,” Mrs. Clinton said, appearing in Washington beside Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba.
Mr. Kim’s death set into motion an uncertain, albeit anticipated, transfer of power to his youngest son, 27-year-old Kim Jong-un, who is slated to become the youngest person to head a nation with nuclear weapons.
The question surging through Washington’s foreign policy community Monday focused on who in Kim Jong-il’s inner circle will control the arsenal and how the U.S. should respond if the situation worsens.
“For the United States, up until today, the North Korea problem was a denuclearization problem,” said Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now it is potentially a loose-nukes problem.”
Complicating the question is the extent to which the transition of power from Mr. Kim to his son might be disrupted by others within the regime.
An older, more seasoned element of the North Korean military may seek to seize on the suddenness of Mr. Kim’s death as an opportunity to shift the balance of power away from the Kim family in Pyongyang.
While at least one senior U.S. official expressed concern about Kim Jong-un’s youth and lack of experience, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration has no reason to believe he would not take power.
“We see no indication that the succession as prior to this event, the succession that had been contemplated, won’t take place,” Mr. Carney said.
How the transition will unfold remains as unclear as just about everything else in North Korea — including the government, its society and its nuclear arsenal.
Because of North Korea’s tight control on information coming into and going out of the country, U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence officials expressed a wait-and-see attitude toward events unfolding in Pyongyang.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed concern about Kim Jong-un’s age. He “is young to be put in this position, and we will have to see if [the next leader], in fact, is him and how he reacts to the burden of governance that he hasn’t had to deal with before,” Gen. Dempsey said.
Speaking in Ramstein, Germany, Gen. Dempsey said the U.S. and its allies had not seen any change “in North Korean behavior that would alarm us.”
While South Korean officials announced a higher level of alert for their armed forces, Gen. Dempsey said the U.S. had not.
North Korea’s pursuit and development of nuclear weapons in recent years has irritated the administrations of three U.S. presidents.
Washington has tried repeatedly to embrace multilateral “six-party talks” to pressure North Korea to abandon its weapons program. The talks, which feature South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, have become moribund in recent years.
“The successor regime will have to consolidate itself before it will be prepared to engage the United States, South Korea and others,” said Richard C. Bush III, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Some elements of North Korea’s military or political hierarchies may seize on the fact that next year marks the 100th anniversary of regime founder Kim Il-sung’s birth to pursue their own ambitions. Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-il.
“We just don’t know enough about others in the system to say whether there will be ones who will resist this third dynastic succession,” Mr. Cha said.
John Tkacik Jr., a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who served as chief of China intelligence at the State Department during the Clinton administration, said the U.S. has a chance to undermine the legitimacy of the new regime from the start.
“The way to do that is for the U.S. and South Korea to say that this is a despotic dictatorship that doesn’t represent the North Korean people,” Mr. Tkacik said. “We should not provide food aid or fuel; instead, there should be a heightened military presence that would give us an opportunity to push regime change.”
The Obama administration, meanwhile, disputed reports that it had been planning the resumption of food aid to North Korea’s starving population this week.
In recent months, the administration has attempted to develop a quid pro quo in which North Korea could be pressured into suspending uranium enrichment in exchange for the aid.
“The U.S. has not been extending food aid to North Korea strictly on humanitarian grounds, that’s clear,” said Roberta Cohen, who heads the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
She said it’s understandable that the White House would pull back on the aid announcement.
“When you have this uncertainty about who the new leadership is going to be, and you don’t know who your interlocutor is anymore, obviously they’re going to wait and see,” Ms. Cohen said.
• Dave Boyer, Ashish Kumar Sen, Shaun Waterman and Bill Gertz contributed to this report.