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North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il Dead; Son, Kim Jong-un, to Take Power; South Korean Military on Heightened alert

Aired December 18, 2011 - 22:59   ET


JOHN VAUSE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: So let's go to Stan Grant who is live in Beijing for us. And, of course, Beijing is the best friend to North Korea. They are now reporting the news there.

And Stan, Beijing's reaction and how they deal with this and the influence they have on Pyongyang will be crucial.

STAN GRANT, CNN BEIJING CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely crucial. What is really going to be interesting here, John, is the lot that it shines on the relationship between the United States and China. And remember last year when North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, the United States started carrying out joint exercises with South Korea just off the coastline of China. China wasn't happy about that and said that it in fact contravened Chinese territorial waters. So that relationship is really going to be crucial.

And if you look at some of the comments just coming out for the last six months from U.S. leadership. First, we had Hillary Clinton saying that the U.S. is going to stay in the Asia Pacific. And then Barack Obama, on his recent trip through the region, particularly when he was in Australia, saying that with the draw down of troops in Afghanistan, the end of operations in Iraq, they were going to be focusing a lot more on the Asia Pacific region, to the extent of putting troop on the ground in Darwin, in Australia.

He had talks with some of the countries in Southeast Asia who have expressed their concerns about what they see as an increase in aggression, if you like, or certainly increasing presence from China in their waters as well.

There have been disputes between Japan, between Vietnam, the Philippines and China, all over islands throughout the South China Sea and off the coast of China as well, also disputes between China and South Korea over their territory.

So while we focus very, very closely on North Korea, South Korea and what may happen there, this relationship between the U.S. and China, one that has been emerging as a rivalry, both economic and also for strategic importance throughout the Asia region, is really going to be put under the microscope now.

China's stated aim is to become the preponderant power in Asia. It has always said, though, that it wants to do that peacefully. It doesn't want to get into a situation where it brings on a conflict with the United States. Certainly where you look -- you look at where the lines are drawn here, the U.S. has troop on the South Korean side of the border. Their ally is South Korea. They're sworn to defend the South Korea.

China and North Korea have their relationship, where China certainly intervened during the Korean War on the North Korean side and helped to bolster the North Korean defenses there. It is really going to be interesting to see how this relationship works out, and when the phone call is placed between Barack Obama and Hu Jintao, what they say to each other, John.

VAUSE: Well, the Chinese have often complained that Washington puts too much emphasis, if you like, on Beijing's influence over Pyongyang, that at the end of the day, the North Koreans will do what the North Koreans want to do, despite, you know, the so called influence that Beijing may or may not have over Pyongyang.

So it then gets back to this question, that if there is a regime in turmoil, if it is threatened with collapse, how far can the Chinese go? And what can they actually do to ensure that there is, A, a smooth transition of leadership, and that the entire regime doesn't implode?

GRANT: Well, China always defends China's interests, China's sovereignty, China's territorial integrity. China's interests are always paramount when it comes to Chinese leadership. To the extent that that impacts on Chinese interests, they're obviously going to be very, very vigilant in trying to work very hard to contain things on their side of the border.

But China and North Korea do have a close relationship. It has been described in the past as being like lips and teeth. That's how close it is. It is -- it is the closest relationship that North Korea has. And it is historically based.

You know, during the Korean when China sent volunteers, so called, to head across the borer and fight with the North Koreans to drive the United States and South Korean forces back, when it looked as though they were heading towards Pyongyang, was a decisive move.

VAUSE: If I can interrupt, Stan. Stan, I just want to interrupt you just for a moment. My apologies.

We, have Christiane Amanpour on the line. We are welcoming her back to our network. She joins us now on the line.

Christiane, you were in Pyongyang in North Korea during a very hopeful time, when they destroyed that water cooler tower at the reactor there. Things have changed markedly since then.

Now many people are wondering what will the future hold in the coming weeks, now that Kim Jong-il is dead?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, FORMER CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's exactly right. We were there with a team in 2008. First, with the New York Philharmonic. It was around the time when there were negotiations going on between North Korea and the United States. And they came to fruition in June of 2008, when you're right, we saw the nuclear tower -- the water cooling tower at the Yongbyon plant blown up.

But it was a moment of hope then, which rapidly came to an end in the summer of 2008, because apparently, about that time, most people suspect that Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke. As his health deteriorated, negotiations fell apart. And there have basically been none since then, except for there are report that over the last several months, North Koreans and the United States have been talking.

There were reports that potentially a food deal could be announced, a nutrition deal between the United States and North Korea this week, potentially. And there were reports, as yet not completely confirmed, but that there might be some deal, some movement on a nuclear deal with North Korea, again agreeing to suspend their enrichment activity.

Again, this has not yet been announced. But this was something that certainly United States negotiators, who have met several times with North Korean negotiators over the past several months, both in Geneva and in Beijing, had hoped to be able to bring to a fruition.

VAUSE: Christiane, everyone is now looking to the heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, a man who we know very little about. We think he is in his late 20s. And he likes basketball. We heard Mike Chinoy giving us a few more details, that he is a quiet, polite man. But is this the young man, with very little experience, the man who can essentially create the cult of personality as his father and his grandfather did?

AMANPOUR: Well, it is probably unlikely that he will be able to do that. Even Kim Jong-il was not able to maintain the cult of personality that his own father did, Kim Il-Sung. And certainly when Kim Jong-il nominated his young son to take over, people are concerned.

He is very young. He hasn't got that much experience that we know of. And he's going to be taking over, we presume, a nuclear nation. We will have to wait and see.

The issue here is whether it will promote more hard line policies from some of the old guard, whether they will, you know, sort of circle the wagons around this young man, and whether it will put a stop to some of these negotiations that were going on with the United States or whether they will be able to go through, nonetheless.

VAUSE: Christiane, we're now in that very difficult tense period of time. The South Koreans are on heightened military alert. We know that the North Koreans during these very difficult internal periods often act out militarily. They can often shell the border. They can carry out nuclear missile tests, as well as underground nuclear tests.

So given all of that, the tension that we are likely to see, what are the concerns here? How quickly could this spiral out of control?

AMANPOUR: Well, that is assuming it -- it is likely to spiral out of control. We are not sure that that's necessarily the trajectory. You are absolutely right. We were reporting back in 2009 when North Korea tested a missile that may have been capable of reaching U.S. shores. That, of course, you know, was widely condemned. And there were more U.N. sanctions.

North Korea then, which was absolutely livid, and said it was only trying to get a satellite into space, which most people derided. That is when it walked away from those ongoing nuclear disarmament talks.

Sp the years of the Obama administration have simply been years where they have not had those nuclear disarmament talks, expect for, as I say, in these last few months. And that has had some hope that this could be a foreign policy sort of moment for President, if all of this had come through. I guess people are still hoping that it will.

But obviously, it's likely possibly to be delayed by the death of Kim Jong-il.

VAUSE: Christiane, thank you so much.. We want to go back to our Wolf Blitzer, who is also on the line for us, because there has been some talk about the Obama administration policy towards North Korea, which at first appeared to be engagement, and a recent last couple of years essentially not engaging at all with the North Koreans.

So how do you think it is going to change, Wolf?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, it's going to be -- first of all, in the very short term, it's going to be extremely sensitive. Everything that the South Koreans, the U.S., especially the Japanese, for that matter, everything that everyone does right now is going to be seen potentially by North Korea as very provocative. They are paranoid to begin with, I think it's fair to say.

They are going to be watching very closely. So this is -- there is a potential, as Mike Chinoy has pointed out accurately, for a dramatic miscalculation, if you will. And I think it is fair to say, right now, everyone, the North Koreans, the South Koreans, the Chinese, the U.S., Japan, everyone in the region wants this to be a calm, smooth transition.

But the fact that the South Koreans have already gone on a heightened state of alert, that will immediately, I hear, force the North Koreans to do something. Then the South Koreans could go further.

So everyone -- I think the U.S. will be saying in the region, calm down a little bit. Let's see what happens. Let's not take any dramatic step that could further exacerbate what potentially could be an extremely sensitive situation.

The stakes are going to be enormous for that entire region, with so many troops, you know, literally only eyeball to eyeball along the demilitarized zone. And let's not forget, North Korea still has a nuclear arsenal. So it is a moment that's rife for miscalculation and unintended consequences. So -- so this -- this -- I think the North Koreans are trying, at least based on the surface, the fact that they have made this announcement calmly, the fact that they have said there is a funeral scheduled for December 28th, that Kim Jong-un, the young son, the heir apparent, is going to be in charge of funeral arrangements -- I think they're trying to do this in a calm, coordinated, smooth way.

But they will -- the North Koreans are paranoid. They think everyone in the region -- everyone around the world is out to get them. If they're overly sensitive -- overly tough actions from South Korea, in term of going on a higher state of military alert. I think that inevitably will force the North Koreans to do something, which in turn could force the South Koreans.

So I think the U.S. understands this. And I'm sure the Obama administration is urging everyone to just take a deep breath, calm down, and let's see what happens.

VAUSE: Wolf, just from your time -- from your many, many years in Washington, just walk us through exactly what would be happening right now within the State Department and within the White House. What is actually going on at this late hour in D.C.?

BLITZER: Well, there's emergency meetings at the Pentagon, the CIA, at the State Department. I wouldn't be surprised if the top national security advisers to the president are meeting in the Situation Room over in the West Wing of the White House.

They are, first of all, gathering information. They want to know exactly, you know, what -- what they are seeing. They have the spy satellites over North Korea. I'm sure they are listening to what's going on. They are monitoring North Korean media.

They're trying to get a clue of what is happening. They're certainly speaking with their friends in the region, including, of course, South Korea and Japan and China, and Russia, for that matter, as well, because those countries may have, you know, a lot better information about what's happening in North Korea than the U.S. has.

It's one of these situations that everyone, you know, dreads, because as much as the world focuses in on what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan or Pakistan and other crises, you know, for 50, 60 years, everyone knows that one of the most dangerous spots on Earth, if not the most dangerous, potentially, is the Korean Peninsula.

So these are one of these, you know, fears that national security advisers, presidents of the United States, secretaries of Defense, CIA directors have, that they get a call and something like this happened. So they go into full scale, you know, intelligence collection and emergency meetings to make sure they're on top of it, to make sure everything works in a relatively calm, smooth, peaceful, transition.

So that is what they are trying to do. I think, at this point -- at this point, they are basically gathering information in a very, very heightened state of alert. VAUSE: And Elise Labott at the State Department, if there is any means of communication between Pyongyang and Washington, how would that happen?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT PRODUCER: Well, John, in addition to having some low level contacts, you also have the North -- the U.S. coordinator for North Korea, Glen Davies, who just recently, last week, as we have been reporting, met with North Korean officials in Beijing.

So perhaps that could be a channel of communication. But we also understand from senior U.S. officials that the U.S. is in communication -- in very close communication with the South Korean government.

They haven't -- the U.S. hasn't been able to independently confirm these reports. As we discussed, there is really not an open line of communication. But the U.S. is, you know, looking to the South Koreans, who probably have some of the best intelligence in the region about what's going on.

We have seen and been reporting tonight, Yonhap News Agency saying that the South Korean military is declaring an emergency out there on Kim Jong-il's death, placing all military units on emergency alert.

And you know, as we know, we have a U.S./South Korea joining combined forces command. So working very closely, obviously, with the South Koreans. We've seen a real year to year and a half of a lot of tensions on the region between North Korea and South Korean. And the U.S. has been obviously coordinating very closely this whole time with South Korea, even all this engagement with North Korea, in terms of possibly restarting the six party. It has really been in lock step with the South Koreans, making sure that the South Koreans felt comfortable every step of the way.

So right now, that is the real closest communication with the administration right now. And as Wolf said, there is a lot of emergency meetings going on, trying to determine how will we respond to this? How does the U.S. engage now? What are going to be the next steps over the next 24 to 48 hours?

VAUSE: They have been in lock step really since the sinking of the Chanang (ph), that South Korean destroyer, which was sunk by a North Korean submarine.

A couple of bulletins to bring you, which we're getting in from the wires. Japan has called a security meeting. And also coming to us from AFP, the Korean stock market closing down -- or down immediately, rather, at the opening by almost five percent, 4.87 percent. So clearly the markets are very worried about what will happen next.

Let's go to Dan Lothian who is at the White House. he has a statement for us. he now joins us live from there. Dan, what are you hearing there? What are you being told? DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORREPONDENT: Well, White House Spokesman Jay Carney putting out just a short statement a short time ago. We had been told earlier not to expect anything from the White House tonight. But this statement coming.

He says, quote, "we are closely monitoring reports that Kim Jong- il is dead. The president has been notified and we are in close touch with our allies in South Korea and Japan. We remain committed to the stability on the Korean Peninsula, and to the freedom and security of our allies."

I think the key here will be to watch what the tone of the Obama administration will be over the next several days in responding to the death of Kim Jong-il. Will it be a hard tone or something less than that? It perhaps could define the long-term relationship between the United States and North Korea.

The second thing, though, I don't think we'll be able to answer tonight is what, in fact, this will mean for the ongoing relationship. Is -- does this present an opportunity between the United States and North Korea? Or is it more of the same?

And I think that can't be answered now. It will be unfolding over the next several months, John.

VAUSE: Yes, there are a lot of questions which will be coming up in the next few hours and the next few days.

I'm wondering, though, Dan, if you can tell us, if you have any idea, did the White House have any prior warning that this was happening before anybody else? Or did they essentially find out when we found out?

LOTHIAN: Well, my guess is that they did not find out when we found out about this, that they perhaps got some advanced notification on that. I do not know that for certain. We have tried to get more details on when the president found out, more additional behind the scenes information. So far, that has not been forthcoming.

We expert perhaps in the morning that will get more details about when the White House did find out about this. But as so many other have been reporting, the Korean Peninsula is an area that has been the focus of this administration. A lot of concerns there.

There has been low level contact between the United States and North Korea. So my sense is that perhaps President Obama, his administration, the top administration officials, did get some word of this prior to the public getting notification. But again, no official word of that yet from the White House.

VAUSE: OK, Dan. Thanks for that. I what to go back now to Mike Chinoy, who has been to North Korea on many, many occasions, 15 in all. Most recently, he was there just this past August.

Mike, we've -- I hope you have been listening. Dan has been reporting a statement that was coming to us from the White House. Fairly bland, not much there, essentially saying they remain committed to the stability of the Korean Peninsula, to the freedom and security of our allies.

Knowing what you know, as far as the Obama policy towards North Korea, what happens in the next couple days, as far as the -- Washington and the administration is concerned?

MIKE CHINOY, U.S.-CHINA INSTITUTE: Well, for the past several months, the North Koreans have been o what some people have called a charm offensive. They've been reaching out, particularly to the United States. They've tried to signal in a great many ways that they want to engage diplomatically, that they are open to coming back to the six party talks.

They've had some discussions with the U.S. about interim steps that could lead to that, including a possible moratorium on activity at their highly enriched uranium facility in return for food aid.

But it has been a generally conciliatory tone. It has, frankly, been the Obama administration that has been playing hard to get here. There is a tremendous degree of suspicion and cynicism within the administration about North Korea's intentions. So it has been the U.S. that has been holding off. And it's been the South Korean who have been holding off even more than the U.S.

In fact, in the mid, late summer, early autumn, my impression is that Washington had to discretely signal to Seoul, kind of ease up a little bit, because the U.S. did intend to try and move ahead with some sort of diplomacy.

So the initial U.S. statement is understandable enough, making a point about solidarity with the United States' ally, South Korea. And of course, President Obama has particularly close personal relationship with the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak.

But the North Koreans have been trying to get a new and different and less confrontational relationship with the United States. And I think there are both opportunities and dangers here for the administration.

If the line just remains we are committed to stability and don't mess with South Korea and nothing else, then I think that is a recipe for deadlock. On the other hand, if the administration can find some creative way to signal that it wants to express condolences, that -- to send signals to the North Koreans that they don't intend or desire to use this moment to try and undermine or topple the North Korean system -- because the North Koreans are very paranoid and they fear that -- then there might be an opening.

So this could very much -- the way in which the U.S. responds could very much set the tone for dealings with the North Koreas for the near -- the near term or perhaps longer. It is a fluid period there. I think if all that Washington does is reaffirm security alliance or send signals of toughness, without correspondingly trying to reassure the North Koreans or in some way reach out, it will only reinforce the natural instinct in North Korea, anyway, at a time like this, which is going to be to hunker down because they think everybody else is out to get them.

So it's a very tricky balancing act for the U.S. And I think -- I hope that Washington is encouraging South Korea to also be very careful and restrained in its own response, because of the delicacy of the moment.

VAUSE: While you've been talking, Mike, we've been looking at some library videos, some file tape of Kim Jong-il. This was I believe at one of the last public meetings that he was seen at, looking very, very frail. That was the Workers Party Meeting. At the time, there was a lot of speculation as to whether or not he would be well enough to turn up. He turned up, looking quite thin, but in a very jovial mood.

While we have you, mike, there is some news coming to us that that joint South Korea/North Korea factory park is still operating as normal. There's been no moves to close that down. That would be an indication that, at least in the short-term, that this -- that it's sort of business as usual, if you like, that thing are progressing in a very calm manner.

CHINOY: I think in the short term, unless somebody makes a very bad mistake, it is going to be very much business as usual. But it is instructive to look at how North Korea responded in 2008, when Kim Jong-il had this unexpected stroke.

I wrote a book on the North Korean nuclear crisis called "Meltdown, the Inside Story of the North Korean Crisis." And I looked a lot at what they did then. And there was sort of a two track response.

On the one hand, they did continue to engage diplomatically with the United States throughout the fall of 2008. But at the same time, there really was a sense of the North Koreans rallying around the flag, sending out signals don't mess with us.

When the diplomatic process collapsed at the end of 2008 -- and it collapsed, in large part, because the Bush administration, under pressure from the conservative governments in South Korea and Japan, pushed North Korea to accept conditions for inspecting its nuclear facilities that had not been in the earlier discussion, and which the North wasn't willing to accept.

That was the context for when the Obama administration took office. And don't forget, in the first six months of the Obama administration, the North Koreans test fired missiles. And after that action was condemned by the United Nations, they staged their second nuclear test. And having done that, they then sent out signals OK, we have made our point; don't mess with us. Now we're ready to engage again.

So I think there are these two parallel tracks. And I think, to some degree, how the North Koreans will behave will depend a little bit on whether they feel there are any indications of movement. If they feel that the U.S. and South Korea feel this is the beginning of the end game for North Korea, and that we don't need to give them anything, and they'll collapse of their own internal contradictions, then I think we could see a much,. much tougher response.

If there are some more conciliatory signals, it's possible the North Koreans would be responsive, based on their behavior when Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and Kim Jong-il had his stroke in 2008.

But, of course, we don't really know because the son is untested, unknown. And we have no sense of how much authority he has. And if it is not him, then what combination of other older figures are actually calling the shots?

VAUSE: And very quickly, Mike, you were there back in August. Was there any indication that Kim Jong-il was not in control, that he was incapacitated, that Somehow his son and a -- and a group of other elites had taken over.

CHINOY: No, I would say quite the opposite. I had not been in Pyongyang in six year. And I went back in August. and I was struck by the sense of political stability across the board, the diplomats, the aid workers, the people I spoke with seemed very convinced that the succession was track, that there was not a lot of internal discord about it.

Moreover, there were some very intriguing signs in Pyongyang of sort of inklings of movement towards opening up a little bit. North Korea now has over a half million people using cell phones, with an internal cell phone system that was set up by an Egyptian company.

There are more private restaurants than I had seen before. There was even the first joint venture pizza parlor in Pyongyang. They were moving ahead with economic zones with the Chinese. While I was there, Kim Jong-il went to Russia and talked with Vladimir Putin about North Korea and Russia and South Korea jointly setting up a gas pipeline to send natural gas from the Russian far east through North Korea to South Korea.

And at the same time, North Korea's first vice foreign minister, Kim Kye-Gwan, was in Washington, meeting with the United States. So I came away not with the sense that the North Koreans were embracing Chinese style market reforms, but that the focus was on securing a more tranquil external atmosphere and trying to crank up the economy.

And that fits into the critical importance of the year 2012 in the North Korean calendar. The North Koreans call it Juche 100. Juche is the nationality ideology of self reliance invented by Kim Il- sung. And April of 2012 is his 100th birthday. And the North Korean official mantra has been that the country should be a powerful and prosperous country.

And the powerful they've got because they've got nukes. And so the emphasis was on the prosperous. And so you had these indications of focusing on the economy. So I actually came away with the sense that it was a little bit more relaxed and a little bit more open to being open than it had been before. I -- it is very hard to interpret what that mean.

And it may well be during in this period of national tragedy and crisis that the North Koreans will -- will tighten things up again, which is a natural response. But there were these very interesting vibes, that were significantly different from the conventional picture of North Korea that a lot of people have.

VAUSE: Mike Chinoy there, on the line for us from Los Angeles, giving us some great insight about what the scene was like in Pyongyang back in August -- of course the North Korean capital.

While Mike was talking, we have been looking at some images of Kim Jong-il from his last trap. That, of course, is Kim Jong-un, his son, who is now believed to be the heir apparent. This is Kim Jong-il on a trip to China back in October of last year. And that is his son the, to the left of your screen, the second from the end, his young son.

No there has been a lot of pressure on North Korea over the years to embrace market reforms Chinese style. Mike saying that's not quite happening, but there has been some kind of loosening up inside North Korea. No indication that there was any tension or the leadership transfer in place at all.

This, of course, was one of the last times Kim Jong-il was seen by us in public, at a Workers Party meeting, again, back in October last year.

Paula Hancocks is our Seoul correspondent. She is actually in Sydney at the moment. But we want to get her insights right now as to what the situation will be in South Korea, how they will react to this, what will happen with the South Koreans and their response to this sudden news that Kim Jong-il is dead.

She joins us also on the line. Paula, what can you tell us?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN SEOUL CORRESPONDENT: John, I think within South Korea, there will be a certain amount of surprise that this would appear to have come quite suddenly. Now, as you know, it's very difficult to get any accurate information from North Korea, or really any accurate information about Kim Jong-il himself.

But there were observers within South Korea that watched every photo, every piece of footage that emerged of (INAUDIBLE) very closely, to try and find out if anything had changed with him. There were assessments made, for example, after his stroke in 2008, whether or not he was moving his left arm well enough. So they really were watching every single movement very closely.

And there was an assumption among those experts that do follow North Korea that he was actually in better health than he had been for some years. So I think this certainly will be somewhat of a surprise. Of course, in South Korea, there will now be the concern, what does this mean?

This is in the middle of a hereditary succession attempt. And of course, it is very early on in a succession attempt. John?

HANCOCKS: I can't imagine there will be many tears shed for this man. He's obviously not liked in South Korea. He is considered an enemy of South Korea in many respects, because of -- of what we've seen over the years and these attacks against South Korean facilities, and especially last November, with that attack against Yeonpyeong Island.

That was the first attack against civilians. And so certainly this was really a change in tactics that South Korea is concerned about.

But I do have to mention that, at the same time, most don't South Koreans don't actually think that much about North Korea on a daily basis. In Seoul, for example, it's not a city where you feel as though you are at war. It's not a city -- technically, they are at war. But you don't feel that sensation.

And many people would not concern themselves too much about what is happening with North Korea. I think that will change now, because, of course, it is the sphere of the unknown. Is there enough time for the -- for the son to be able to take control?

Has he had enough training by his father? It was only really last year, September 2010, when he was announced or he was shown to be the heir apparent. So it's really not that much time for him to have secured the support of the generals and secured the support of those people who would keep him in power.

So I think at the moment, the concern would be the unknown. What will happen next with North Korea? And could South Korea bear the brunt of it?

VAUSE: I can certainly understand what you're saying about Seoul. I've been there. It's a city -- what -- about 30 minute drive or maybe an hours drive from the border, the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, well within range of North Korean artillery.

And yet you are right. It is not a city where people who live there consider themselves to be under threat.

Also on that DMZ, in that area, there are tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed there. They have been there ever since the Korean conflict.

Chris Lawrence is our Pentagon correspondent. He joins us now to tell us exactly what may be happening with U.S. troops who are stationed along that area and what will happen with those troops in the coming hours and the coming days.


CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John. I just was speaking with a few defense officials. Right now, they're watching the press reports and are not reacting in any way as of yet.

But, of course, they have been watching very closely the actions of Kim Jong-il and have been increasingly concerned over the provocations of North Korea over the past several years. Now several officials believe that some of those provocations were due to, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it, Kim Jong-il's youngest son trying to, quote, earn his stripes with the North Korean military.

So whether some of those provocations continue in light of Kim Jong-il's death is something that the military will be watching quite closely. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was just in the region about a month or two ago. And the U.S. and South Korea announced an effort to step up their efforts to head off some of those provocations and attacks by North Korea.

They're going to be beefing up operations in the northwest islands. That's the -- that's been the site of several attacks. And they also are increasingly their readiness against cyber attacks. That's one of the things we've been hearing at the Pentagon increasingly more.

They believe that the North has developed a cyber center. And there are even some reports that has -- that they have attacked South Korean banks in the last few months. So already at a -- at a relatively close watch, from Pentagon officials, keeping an eye on North Korea. And now I'm sure in the coming hours and days, that will be established more intense.

VAUSE: And Chris, there was a time when they were thinking about actually withdrawing U.S. troops, if I'm not wrong, from South Korea. But that was all essentially pushed way back because of the provocations by the North Koreans.

LAWRENCE: That's right. There's 29,000 U.S. troops there in South Korea. and actually, sort of it's reversed from that. And they are actually to perhaps change the designation, whereby those troops would -- you know, would be allowed to have their families close by and like that.

So as of now, for the foreseeable future, the U.S. troops will remain there.

VAUSE: And the relationship, from a military point of view, as well as a diplomatic point of view, at least as far as I can see, between South Korea and the United States, really took an up tick after the sinking of the Cheonan, the South Korean destroyer, which an independent international inquiry found had been sunk by a North Korean submarine torpedo.

So ever since then, these two country have really worked a lot closer than they have in the past; yes?

LAWRENCE: Very much so. But -- but the relationship has always been somewhat close. But I think, John, you saw there up close North Korea and South Korea -- the level of tension that was there. You wonder if people sitting at home really understood just how tension the relationship was at that point, when the ship sank in 2010.

You know, the U.N. commission blamed North Korea for the sinking of that ship. North Korea reacted in a hostile fashion to that accusation. So the tensions were very, very high.

When the tensions are low, you can sense there is a feeling that perhaps would allow the United States to drift away somewhat, or not keep the levels of intensity with the military to military cooperation.

But then when you have these provocations and you have incidents like this, it really serves to sort of bind the South Korean and the United States militaries even closer.

VAUSE: Chris Lawrence, our Pentagon correspondent, on the line there, giving us some perspective on the military relationship between South Korea and the United States, what is likely to happen should the North Koreans ratchet up the tension, which some analysts we've been speaking to expect may be happening, to try and essentially send a warning to the west that the North Koreans should not be interfered with during this very delicate time.

A lot of questions now, though, about the new man who is likely to take over from Kim Jong-un -- Kim Jong-il, rather. That is his son, Kim Jong-un. We know very little about him. But we are hoping that Han Park, who is the director for the Center for Study of Global Issues at the University of Georgia -- he joins us now also on the line.

Han Park, good to speak with you. Can you tell us what you know about Kim Jong-un, the man who is expected to be the next leader of North Korea?

HAN PARK, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA: Yes, before -- before I mention anything about him, I think I would like to make some important observation. And that is we tend to think that North Korea has been governed by one man, Kim Jong-il, just like his father did the four decades before that.

In fact, the difference between Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim Il-Sung, is that Kim Jong-il has mobilized that the political party -- that's Korea Locust Party -- quite skillfully. And also decisions have been made basically by the party leadership, and then he rubber stamped, in many case. So I think that trend will continue under Kim Jong-un's leadership.

Kim Jong-un is not going to be expected, nor is he qualified, to make tough decisions. But the party system is there. And the decision making mechanism that has been established by Kim Jong-il will continue. And therefore, the succession process, even in intermediate terms, should be -- should be smooth.

Of course, immediately, reverence for the person who died, no -- no major departure from the norm will be expected. So Kim Jong-un himself -- Kim Jong-un himself, just like his father, he -- he was expected to succeed.

But they refused -- the North Koreans refused the system to be called or regarded as a hereditary system, dynastic system. In fact, everything will be through their version of electoral process. And there will be a major election and so forth.

So I think that it is premature to conclude that Kim Jong-un will make all the shots. And he's inexperienced. He's not very intelligent and so forth. And therefore, it is dangerous -- the military will override his -- his will. And -- and that might invite overreaction from South Korea and from the United States.

I think that's very dangerous. Right now, North Korea is clearly under the control of what is called military first politics. And military generals themselves are very important party leaders.

So it -- the civilian membership, the bureaucracy doesn't play a whole lot of role in North Korea anymore. So I think the death of Kim Jong-il is shocking, but not as shocking as it was when Kim Il-sung died in 1994.

So they managed. They muddled through that. I don't expect the transition and the future development will be as uncertain as widely believed.

VAUSE: So let's just recap here. Essentially, you are saying that there is a succession process will be given time to breath, that it will be essentially -- the place will run itself for a period of time, certainly while the country mourns Kim Jong-il, and that right now, the military, essentially, are calling the shots?

PARK: The military has been doing that. Military not in isolation from the party. Basically, this country is run by the Korea Workers Party. Unlike previously, the military coincides with the party leadership.

So yes, the fact that the military is in the center of the power, in the name of the party, will remain. Kim Jong-il has been more -- more of a symbolic figure in past --


PARK: I think that is a very important thing to realize.

VAUSE: Answer this for me, if you can: we know that Kim Jong-il was a ruthless leader who oversaw mass famine of his own people, who starved them, who refused to allow hem to leave the country, who was responsible for, at least we understand, throwing thousands, if not tens of thousands of people into prison.

Will his son, should he take over -- and eventually that does seem to be the game plan here. Do we know if his son will be any different than the father?

PARK: I -- I'm not sure if I agree with that assessment completely. When a country is under a security threat, as North Koreans have felt at least subjectively, and objectively as well, then human rights and imprisonment and much oppressive policy -- policy is expected.

So as long as North Korea is still -- is still in the same security threat situation, I think we can expect the same thing under Kim Jong-un, or post-Kim Jong-il era.

However, I think Kim Jong-un would -- would very much be obsessed to develop the economy, more than anything else, because Kim Jong-il kind of wanted his son to become like China's -- China's Deng Xiaoping, so that economic pragmatism is going to be first the choice -- first option or foreign policy priority on the part of Kim Jong-un.

If that doesn't work, of course, I think it is -- it is highly unlikely that North Korea will reform and change and become a democratic system whatsoever. nor will there be a Korean version of Arab rising, for example. I don't think the culture -- political culture and the ruling mechanism is going to invite any kind of mass uprising from below.

Mike Chinoy mentioned of 10,000 -- 100,000 cell phones. But they're not really in good use as all. That horizontal kind of communication network is virtually inexistent there. So -- so I think it is so important at this time, the world, especially Washington and Seoul, not to overreact to this. And of course, they have military alerts in both capitals, perhaps.

But I don't think North Korea can come out any provocative way militarily, because that would mean it is instant suicide. And they're not going to do that.

VAUSE: OK. Han Park, the director for the Center for Study of Global Issues at the University of Georgia, on the line there from Athens, Georgia, giving us some perspective about what may or may not be happening inside North Korea.

It seems that the key here that a lot of people continue to say is overreaction, hoping that neither Seoul nor Pyongyang or Washington or Beijing overreacts, ensuring that the situation remains calm.

So let's get a little bit more about what the U.S. reaction has been so far, fairly muted.

Dan Lothian is in Washington with word from the White House. And Dan, it does appear that it has been a fairly calm reaction and a fairly expected reaction from the White House.

LOTHIAN: That's right. And the reason for that is because the White House wants to carefully gauge what is going on the ground. And that's not something that can be assessed completely over the next 24,000 hours.

The direction to which North Korea will be going in the future will be determined perhaps over the next several weeks or several months. and as you pointed, a fairly muted reaction from the White House, a short statement coming a short time ago, saying, quote, "we are closely monitoring reports that Kim Jong-il is dead. The president has been notified. and we are in close touch with our allies in South Korea and Japan. We remain committed to stability on the Korean Peninsula, and to the freedom and security of our allies."

I want to talk just briefly about something earlier that you were addressing with one of you guests about the overall relationship between the United States and South Korea. Indeed, President Obama does have a very close relationship with President Lee.

Together, they have put out some forceful language about the actions in North Korea. And I'll just remind you of something that was said back in October -- October 13th, during a joint press conference between President Lee and President Obama, talking about the provocation of North Korea, and President Obama saying, quote, the -- rather, "together we succeeded in changing the equation with the North by showing that its provocations will be met not with rewards but with even stronger sanctions and isolation."

The president going on to say, "so the choice is clear for North Korea. Pyongyang, if they continue to ignore its international obligations, it will invite even more pressure and isolation."

So the question being now what will the official reaction be from the White House over the next coming hours. Again, just a short statement released earlier. But will we have a statement from the White House expressing condolences?

Will there be something that does also include strong language about North Korea in the past and North Korea going forward? My sense is that there will be a balance of condolences but also talking about the need for reforms in North Korea.

But we can't understate how important it will be for that language -- that language that the White House will be putting out in the coming days, John.

VAUSE: Dan, thank you. Dan Lothian, live for us in Washington. Along with the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department is closely following events in Pyongyang, North Korea. Our Elise Labott is the senior producer at the State Department. She joins us once again on the line.

Elise, I understand you have some new details?

LABOTT: John, in addition to the white House obviously reaching out to the South Korean's (INAUDIBLE) and coordinating that very closely, obviously the intelligence community watching this very closely. A U.S. official tells our senior national security producer, Pam Benton (ph), who follows intelligence matters for us, you know, look, this brings extraordinary change and uncertainty to Korea and we're mindful of that.

South Korea's concern is warranted because an insecure North Korea could well be an even more dangerous South Korea. And that's why, as Dan said, U.S. and South Korea, as I've been told tonight, very closely coordinating the situation together. And even as President Obama was talking that tough line with President Lee, U.S., as we've been reporting all night, has been looking for ways to keep the options open, trying to engage with North Korea, just because of this unpredictability and insecurity about the North Korean succession. They really didn't know what Kim Jong-il's health was. You know one minute, he was very fit. Then recently one of our Pentagon producers, Larry Shaughnessy (ph), was traveling in the region and was told by U.S. military officials, actually we believe that the pace of succession has slowed.

So U.S. really wanted to keep its options open, keep those lines of communication to North Korea open. And several talks over the last six months, two rounds of North Korea's talks on the nuclear issue, then these recent talks, as recently as last week, on food aid.

The U.S. not closing any doors to North Korea. And certainly right now, while they're coordinating with South Korea, it's certainly looking for them not to overreact right now, John.

VAUSE: OK. Elise Labott on the line there, our senior State Department producer.

One country which probably has a better idea than most exactly what's going on right now inside Pyongyang would be China. In Beijing, Stan Grant is live for us. But we are pretty certain that the Chinese will not be giving away too many details, even though they probably have some kind of idea about the succession, about what is about to happen next.

And in fact, they were probably told before anybody else was that the Dear Leader was dead.

GRANT: Indeed, John. You know, as you know full well, China does not like surprises. They like to control things within their border. And they like to control things within their sphere of influence.

And North Korea certainly is that. It's a line that's often used, but North Korea or China have been described as like lips and teeth.

We're hearing a lot about uncertainty, about the unexpected, about what may or could happen in North Korea. A lot of that obviously will come from the outside, from the west, because North Korea is not called the hermit kingdom for nothing. It's a very opaque place.

But for North Korea, for China, this is not going to come as any surprise. Kim Jong-il has been in poor health for some time. He's traveled to China. He's brought his son here. China has had constant envoys going back and forth between Beijing and Pyongyang.

So certainly as far as succession, certainly as far as controlling this situation, trying to stabilize the situation as soon as possible, there would be contingencies in place.

Mike Chinoy has talked about the level of stability in North Korea that he's seen of late. We also have to remember that Kim Jong- il, however eccentric his leadership may have been depicted as, was able to survive for a very long time, was able to see off successive U.S. presidents, was able to use brinkmanship to be able to advance his cause, give a little bit here and take a little there -- a little bit more back there.

What we do need to focus on though, John, is the unexpected, the uncertain. We need to focus on the possibility of misunderstanding. Now I was last year at Yeonpyeong Island when North Korea shelled that island. And largely why that came about was because of a misunderstanding.

South Korea were carrying out war games in the region. North Korea had warned against it. South Korea continued. And then North Korea hit.

Afterwards, there were great recriminations within South Korea about the inability of their forces to strike back fast enough and hard enough. Lee Myong-Bak was criticized for his leadership.

So certainly when you have heightened tensions, when you have a history of conflict, it opens the door for that misunderstanding. And that's where problems can arise. John?

VAUSE: Stan, Stan, something which we haven't talked a lot about since this news broke that Kim Jong-il is dead is actually Kim Jong-il the man. And to many people who looked at him from the outside, he was considered the idiot son. He was the buffoon with the big hair. He was the ruthless dictator.

So as far as history will judge him, how will he be remembered?

GRANT: Well, it is different history, isn't it? Certainly within his own country, he was almost the son of God. If you look at his father, Kim Il-sung, a man who was lionized for his role in fighting the Japanese, was seen as a freedom fighter, someone who did appear to be God-like in the minds of North Koreans, and still held in that way today, the eternal president.

His son, Kim Jong-il, there was a myth surrounded around about him, that he was porn in a shack on a sacred mountain, guided by a star. As you can see, all the hallmarks of some sort of a Biblical birth.

In fact, as we now know, it's more likely he was born in the Soviet Union while his father was there. Again, he lived the life of a princling. He was raised as a demigod himself.

And yet, the eccentricities were undeniable. You touch on the bouffant (ph) hair, the platform shoes, the penchant for ballroom dancing. He saw himself as a film maker, was married to a South Korean actress that he was said to have kidnapped, used to bring his personal chefs in to cook his own particular delicacy that he liked from Russia, and so on, had a fear of flying, only liked to travel by train.

So a man who was certainly seen as very eccentric. But we can't just see him through that prism. We have to see him also as a man who was able to survive. I think as -- as Mike Chinoy has pointed out in the past, the primary aim -- the primary business of the regime there is survival.

Juche, which is the national philosophy, is all about self reliance. And it's about building yourself to protect yourself against any outside influence. He was able to do that. He was able to survive. He was able to use the six party negotiations to advance his cause. In the past, he was seen to offered one thing on the other hand, to take two more things off the table with the other.

In terms of survival, he will certainly be seen as being very effective. But if you look at the inside of his country, what we hear out of there, the stories of mass starvation, the fact that they rely on food, on 80 to 90 percent of their fuel supplies from China, the fact that they couldn't survive without that -- without that aid, the horrendous stories of people who have risked everything to escape that country, risked death, leaving their families behind to try to get out and lead a better country.

How he will be remember for the his own people may not be so positive.

VAUSE: The other thing, too, which we have to keep in mind is that, in the past, North Korea, under his leadership, has been described as the Soprano State, which is a reference to the illicit activity which has gone on inside North Korea, everything from the manufacturing of methamphetamine to counterfeiting U.S. currency.

There's also been the elicit nuclear missile program, selling missiles around the world. I mean, in this many sense of the word, if you are to believe U.S. intelligence and western intelligence and diplomats -- this has been a rogue regime.

GRANT: Absolutely a rogue regime, a hermit kingdom that was cut off from the rest of the world, so opaque. We just didn't know what was going on in there.

Of course, you look at the illicit trade, whether it's guns, whether it's tobacco, whether it's drugs, and whether it's nuclear arms -- of course, we know of the relationship between Pakistan, for instance, and North Korean.

Anyone who has looked closely at the development of the Pakistani nuclear program knows that senior scientists from there traveled to North Korea, that North Korea and Pakistan colluded. Some have pointed to the role of China in that as well as a proliferator.

But certainly North Korea and Pakistan worked very, very closely on their joint nuclear programs. And really, that's what it was all about, the ultimate card that North Korea could play, the card it could play to get a real seat at the table was its nuclear arms, was to carry out a nuclear test and say to the rest of the world, look, we have arrived. We're not this silly little country. We're not this hermit kingdom ruled by this eccentric buffoon head with platform shoes leader.

We are someone now who can inflict real damage. And that's when you started to see the whole relationship shift. Remember before when George Bush had -- had described him as a dictator who was starving his people, as this evil man? So much of that changed after he got nuclear weapons. Then there were letters directed to him asking for negotiation, saying come back to the table, see what we can work out.

Holding those nuclear arms, being able to proliferate nuclear arms throughout the world has really been a trump card for them, and one they've been prepared to play.


VAUSE: One which is also the train -- if you are to believe what the United States says -- the trade in illicit weapons has also been a much needed source of hard currency for that regime, which has been heavily sanctioned for many, many years.

For those of you who are just joining us, we would like to recap our main story. It is the end of an era in North Korea. State television says North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has died.

State TV said the 69 year old leader suffered a heart attack on Saturday while on a train trip. It also said a funeral will be held December 28th in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-il had been in power since 1994, when his father died of a heart attack.

As we said, the news of the Dear Leader's death was announced on North Korean state TV. And the anchor gave a very emotional delivery.

Let's listen.