The Coldest War

How a succession crisis put the U.S. and North Korea on a collision course — and why two Americans are caught in the middle

  • Share
  • Read Later
Lee Jae-Won / Reuters

South Koreans hold portraits of U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

When he was a boy, the apparent dictator-in-waiting used to be an enthusiastic basketball player — not to mention a sort of coach on the floor. Kim Jong Un, the youngest son of the man known as the Dear Leader, North Korea's Kim Jong Il, would play hoops with his friends and his brother and afterward, according to a memoir written by his family's former chef, would gather his teammates and offer constructive criticism: "You should have passed here instead of shooting. We should have double-teamed this guy." (No one, mind you, ever told the Dear Leader's son what he might have done wrong.)

Kim Jong Un is 26 and a chip off the old block, according to Kenji Fujimoto, the Japanese chef who used to cook for the Kim clan. He is short, a bit overweight and "aggressive," Fujimoto has said, "just like his father." And Kim Jong Un is now, many analysts believe, officially in line to succeed Kim Jong Il as the leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea — which helps explain Pyongyang's recent explosively belligerent behavior. (Read "Time to Face Facts on Our North Korea Ignorance.")

Just over four months into Barack Obama's presidency, North Korea has become his first foreign policy crisis. To force itself to the top of Obama's agenda, the North has resorted to just about every nasty tactic short of war — testing both a long-range rocket and a nuclear bomb, arresting two American journalists and sentencing them to harsh prison terms. With such provocations, North Korea seems intent on establishing that it is more dangerous than ever. Kim Jong Un is at least part of the reason.

Family Matters
Late last summer, his father, 68, suffered a stroke, and that brush with mortality apparently concentrated his mind. North Korea was founded by Kim Jong Il's father, the so-called Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, who has become, in the decades since, the focus of a dynastic cult of personality like no other. (Dead for 15 years, Kim Il Sung is still North Korea's "President for life.") Kim Jong Il has three sons from two wives. The eldest embarrassed his father in 2001 by trying to sneak into Japan on a fake passport. His father thinks the middle son, Kim Jong Chul, is "too feminine" for the job, according to Fujimoto. Hence the mantle of leadership will apparently someday be handed to Kim Jong Un. "A systematic succession plan is now under way, and has been since early this year," Cheong Seong-chang of the Seoul-based Sejong Institute and one of South Korea's leading experts on North Korean political élites, wrote in a report, parts of which are classified, prepared for the South Korean joint chiefs of staff. The son's political rise is being guided — and protected — by Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law Chang Sung Taek, who most analysts believe would effectively run North Korea if Kim Jong Il were to die suddenly.

What does this have to do with Pyongyang's recent belligerence? According to diplomats and intelligence sources in Washington and East Asia, plenty. The North Koreans have chosen what could have been a period of weakness — with an ailing leader trying to arrange the eventual transfer of power to an untested son — to state that it does not intend to give up its nuclear weapons program. "It's pretty clear they have made the strategic choice to be a nuclear power, period, and will no longer hold out the weapons program as a thing to be bargained away in talks with the U.S. and its neighbors," says Bruce Klingner, a former deputy chief of the Korea desk at the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence and now a senior fellow at Washington's Heritage Foundation. "They've decided that now is the time to raise, not lower, the walls against foreign interference." (Read "Jailed U.S. Reporters: Business as Usual for North Korea.")

The Obama Administration, for its part, feels as if it has no choice but to overhaul its policy. "We're in potentially a different place now with North Korea," a senior Administration official tells TIME. Obama came into office determined to close the deal George W. Bush had started to negotiate during his second term: persuading the North to stand down its nuclear program in return for an array of economic benefits as well as eventual diplomatic recognition by Washington. For now, that strategy is off. "I'm tired of buying the same horse twice," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates late last month. In its place, if North Korea continues on its current path, say Administration officials, will be an "aggressive, defensive posture" toward the North. With engagement on ice, thanks to Kim Jong Il, the U.S. will try a policy of containment in hopes of preventing further expansion or export of the North's nuclear program.

Enter the Hostages
But Washington's desire to isolate the North has been complicated by Pyongyang's June 8 sentencing of two Americans to 12 years of hard labor. Euna Lee, 36, and Laura Ling, 32, were filming a report for Current TV, a San Francisco – based network co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore, on North Korean refugees in China. They were working near the border city of Dandong in northeastern China when they were arrested on March 17. The two were convicted of illegal entry into North Korea — accounts differ as to whether the women inadvertently crossed the border — as well as unspecified "hostile acts."

See TIME's pictures of the week.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2