Roehrig, Korea expert, weighs in on leadership transition in interview
By Aaron S. Robertson
As soon as the world learned of the passing of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and the naming of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor, I immediately knew who to turn to seeking insights and understanding into what many around the world fear can potentially turn into a complex situation with the ability to shake up international affairs: Dr. Terence Roehrig.
Dr. Roehrig is a professor of national security affairs and director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, a post he has held for roughly six years. Prior to that, he was at Cardinal Stritch University, in Milwaukee, from 1992-2006, leaving that institution as an associate professor and chair of the political science department. Dr. Roehrig has written, lectured, and consulted extensively through the years on Asian affairs, with a special focus on Korea. His research takes him to Korea once, sometimes twice, per year, and he has also traveled to Japan, China, and India.
As an undergraduate student at Cardinal Stritch University, I had the pleasure of studying with Dr. Roehrig as a political science major. I am pleased to offer you this interview with him on this critical topic, and I thank him for sharing his time and expertise.
Before proceeding, please note that the views expressed here by Dr. Roehrig are solely his own, and in no way represent the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Defense, or any other government agency or entity.
"The short of it is, we don't know," Roehrig said, when asked what the world can expect next coming out of North Korea. "There's a lot of speculation, that's for sure."
Asked how intelligence is gathered about North Korea, Roehrig explained that, "It's extremely difficult to obtain information. It's a very secret, opaque society." He said that any official pronouncements and statements coming from its government are carefully watched and analyzed, as are any signs of leadership changes based on who is seen with the leader and how close they are appearing next to him. Occassionally, there are also some “mysterious” car crashes involving senior leaders. North Korean defectors are also a source of information but there are limits to what can be gleaned from them. "In many cases, these defectors are not high-level officials, so they do not have information on what is happening in the upper levels of government. And in many cases, the information could simply be old."
Roehrig went on to talk about Kim Jong-un. "Not a lot is known about him at this point. We know it's most likely that he's 28 years old, perhaps 27. We know he attended boarding school in Switzerland and recently received several high-level positions in the party along with the the rank of four-star general, despite not having served in the military." These positions were all efforts to provide the younger Kim with the proper experience and to solidify his position before his father passed away. However, it’s unlikely enough time has passed for this to happen. He said he envisions a relatively smooth transition, not necessarily to him, but to a collective leadership. "He'll stay in power, but he will not be the power, at least in the short term," Roehrig said. He went on to note that April 15, 2011 will mark the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un and North Korea's ruler from 1948 until his death in 1994. It was expected that Kim Jong-un might receive more power and titles on this date but it is uncertain now how the regime will handle the event. In the party statement that announced his father’s death, Roehrig noted, Kim Jong-un was identified as “the great successor to the revolution” and “the eminent leader of the military and the people,” clear statements that Kim Jong-un is the leader in name. Yet, it is very likely Kim Jong-un will not be the chief decision maker for some time.
Despite a lot of the concern and hype circulating by others in both the international community and among the general public, Roehrig said he tends to be more optimistic on the likelihood of a stable transition.
"North Korea really needs China right now, so they don't want to jeopardize that relationship by being too provocative in any way," he said, going on to add that South Korea will most likely respond militarily this time around if the North provokes a serious incident, referencing the sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of one of its islands by the North in 2010. "And the North knows that." Furthermore, Roehrig went on to submit, the establishment has a lot to lose if the transition goes badly.
Asked if it's possible North Korea's foreign and economic policies may see changes as a result of the new leadership, Roehrig said that it's unlikely. "The North is preoccupied with internal affairs, and the leadership will continue a stable course," he said.
Despite Roehrig's optimism on the situation, though, "The truth is - we just don't know."