USC News

Menu Search

North Korea: 100 days after dictator’s death

North Korea details
USC faculty and postdocs addressed the current and future state of North Korea during a recent panel discussion.

Citizens and government officials in the United States, Japan and South Korea anxiously awaited signs that U.S.-North Korean relations would improve after dictator Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack in December.

They’re still waiting.

More than four months later, North Korea’s actions have signaled not much has changed, as the country maintains its historic turbulent relationships with its neighbors, said postdoctoral fellow Sandra Fahy at the USC Korean Studies Institute housed at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“North Korean defectors suggest that many people are feeling frustrated and burdened,” said Fahy, whose research focuses on the internal sociopolitical dynamics of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “They are saying things are much worse now than before Kim Jong-il’s death.”

Fahy participated in “Assessing North Korea 100 Days After the Death of Kim Jong-il,” a panel discussion sponsored by the East Asian Studies Center and the USC Korean Studies Institute and the USC U.S.-China Institute.

David Kang, professor of international relations and business, and USC Korean Studies Institute director, moderated the discussion held in the Tyler Prize Pavilion on the University Park campus.

“We waited 100 days because we wanted to see what would happen,” Kang said. “We got more than we bargained for because there is an enormous amount going on right now.”

Panelists included Fahy; Patrick James, professor of international relations at USC Dornsife and director of the USC Center for International Studies; USC Korean Studies Institute postdoctoral student Ki-young Sung; and Daniel Lynch and Saori Katada, associate professors of international relations in USC Dornsife.

U.S.-North Korea relations have been plagued with frustration and mistrust, panelists said. In February, it appeared strides were being made when the United States agreed to provide food assistance to North Korea. Kim Jong-un, the country’s new leader, had promised to freeze its uranium and weapons programs in exchange for 240,000 tons of food aid. But by March the offer was repealed when North Korea announced it would launch a satellite into orbit in April to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il-sung, who died in July 1994. (The long-range launch crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff.)

“Essentially everything is back to where we were before Kim Jong-il’s death,” Kang said.

Panelist Sung was not caught off guard by North Korea’s contradictory move since it has long been anticipated that North Korea would celebrate Kim Il-sung’s birthday, which symbolizes a changing of the guards in leadership.

“The launch celebrates the inauguration of a young and inexperienced leader who is deliberately trying to resemble his grandfather – the respected national founding leader,” Sung said.

When asked why North Korea continues its attempts to launch satellites into space, James explained that when a country is ordered to give up on a particular technology, the request often will encourage the precise opposite.

“They are launching a satellite that will not necessarily kill somebody, but they are creeping closer and looking scarier to South Korea and Japan,” James said.

South Korea and Japan announced they intend to shoot down the satellite if it reaches their borders. The response marked the continuing mistrust that has been building between Japan and North Korea since the 1970s when North Korean spies abducted 13 Japanese citizens and released only, five claiming the others were dead.

“The Japanese are not sure if these citizens are dead, and this issue continues in the minds of Japanese people,” Katada said. “This really foreshadows everything that is happening between Japan and North Korea.”

Jong-un’s leadership capabilities still are undetermined to scholars and policymakers who have been watching the 29-year-old’s moves. James compared Jong-un to George W. Bush, a president inexperienced in foreign policy issues who was surrounded by advisers who highly influenced his decisions. Although the United States appears wildly different, scholars can learn from the former president’s time in office to analyze how advisers may affect Jong-un’s dictatorship, he said.

“There really is no clear control at this point on the part of the new leader,” James said.

Kang was surprised at how quickly North Korea began negotiating with the United States because he believed the country would need time to get back to business after the death of its leader.

“My sense is you might see the fissures at the first big screw-up and then you might see some kind of internal resistance,” Kang said. “I think things there are bleak.”

Panelists agreed that change in North Korea will not come without North Korean military action or a major shift in leadership.

“The abuse of power is still going to take place throughout the country,” Fahy said. “In order to have a bottom-up change, you need to have an aggregate of individuals who can continuously meet without being harassed in North Korea, and that won’t happen in North Korea.”

More stories about: ,

North Korea: 100 days after dictator’s death

Top stories on USC News