Impact of Kim Jong Il's Death on US Policy in Asia

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Stephen Bosworth was, until recently, President Obama's special envoy for North Korea. He's also the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. We were intrigued to see analyst Victor Chao[SP] in the New York Times today, making the point that Washington is basically helpless in this new reality in North Korea. Does China, as he points out, really hold all the cards, and if so where does that leave the US right now?

Stephen Bosworth: I'm not sure China holds all the cards right and we, of course, I think, hold a few basically in terms of the signals we send about how we would like to relate to the North Korean regime as time moves on, but in fact, neither we nor China, in my judgement, really know very much about the inner workings of North Korea. This is a very secretive state and we know a little bit about what their arrangements for the succession, but not all that much.

Werman: Doesn't China know more about North Korea though, than the US?

Bosworth: Probably because they have connections that we don't have, particularly through their military. The two militaries have a kind of fraternal connection that goes back, not surprisingly, to the Korean war.

Werman: This is a powerful moment, though, for the world. I mean if some analysts are suggesting that China is in this position, they have some kind of intelligence that makes them feel like, "Well, we're at a point where we can either let North Korea go it alone, we let them go away or we keep them for ourselves."

Bosworth: Well, I'm not sure that reflects China's real interests in North Korea. China does not want North Korea to be a permanent nuclear weapon state. On the other hand, they also don't want North Korea to collapse. They view North Korea as a very useful buffer in a Geo-strategic sense against South Korea which has a military alliance with the United States. Their nightmare would be the re-unification of the two Korea under a South Korean model with a military relationship with the United States.

Werman: Why would that be a nightmare?

Bosworth: They're not eager to have a US military presence in effect on their border. I'm not sure that's a good idea for us either. We tried that once back in 1950, and we didn't like the result too much.

Werman: You know, when there's so little intelligence, I'm wondering kind of what advice you have, Stephen Bosworth, for the United States government right now in dealing with North Korea. I mean it's kind of like looking at a picture and you can't really see what's going on in the picture.

Bosworth: No, I think the advice that anyone would have is basically to remain calm, don't treat this as some sort of a flaming crisis - at this point it's not, but the real problem is that North Korea is a failing state. A failing state right at the heart of probably the most strategically important economic region of the world - North East Asia. So until we can act collectively with the rest of the countries in the region to stabilize North Korea and give it some prospect for growth, it's going to remain a point of great concern. We must be willing to engage with North Korea. We have a tendency to regard all problems as being vulnerable to a very short term solution.

Werman: And remind us what that strategy is, that the United States has of dealing with this in the long term.

Bosworth: Well, we've been dealing with this, attempting to, at least, through the so called Six-Party process, working with our allies and partners in the region. We have also been pushing them, particularly the Chinese have been pushing them, to embark upon fundamental reform. So far, the North Korean have resisted that. They need it desperately. I think that they even know that they need reform, but they fear that opening up, which would be part of the reform process, makes them very vulnerable to external influence and jeopardizes the survival of the regime, and regime survival is their fundamental goal.

Werman: Well, given that regime survival is going to be there, this is Christmas after all. We can wish. What is the one wish you would have for some kind of progress forward on North Korea right now? Some kind of like little crack in the wall, some ray of sunlight coming through.

Bosworth: Well, I think some indication for the North Koreans that they're willing to engage in good faith efforts to establish that they're prepared to come back and talk seriously about the fundamental problems that exist. This is going to be a long term problem. We're going to have to manage it for a long period of time and remain engaged.

Werman: Stephen Bosworth, dean of the Fletcher School and former envoy to North Korea. Thank you very much for coming in.

Bosworth: You're very welcome.