Secret US cables show speculation over North Korea’s future

Monday, November 29, 2010

WASHINGTON - Secret US cables depict conversations between US and South Korea officials about the possibility of the regime in North Korea collapsing and plotting over China’s response, The New York Times reported Monday.

According to The Times, the US ambassador to Seoul relayed the content of conversations with a South Korean official who predicted that Pyongyang would fall within “two to three years” following the death of North Korea’s aging leader Kim Jong Il.

The ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, said in the February cable that the South Korean diplomat, Chun Yung-woo, believed a younger generation of Chinese leaders would be comfortable with a reunited Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the US in a benign alliance, according to the Times.

The cable went on to say that the South Koreans believed Chinese concerns could be placated if Beijing received assurances it would have commercial access to the North Korean market once the peninsula was reunited for the first time since World War II.

The cable emphasised that US forces should remain in the southern part to avoid provoking China. China is North Korea’s closest friend and supports the regime with fuel and food. China views North Korea as a buffer zone from the South and also fears that a regime collapse could send millions of North Koreans across the border into China.

Most of the cables on North Korea reflect few hard facts on events in the isolated Stalinist state and relied heavily on speculation, the Times said.

The New York Times obtained thousands of classified US documents from WikiLeaks, the self-proclaimed whistleblower website, and began publishing stories Sunday and will continue doing so throughout the week. The Times was among a handful of news organisations granted access to the material by WikiLeaks.

The documents were released despite the strong objections of the US government, which says they were stolen and should be returned.

Even the Chinese expressed frustrations over dealing with the North Koreans, The Times reported. When James Steinberg, the deputy US secretary of state, met in September 2009 with Chinas state councilor for foreign affairs, Dai Bingguo, a cable showed he said he did not dare to be too candid with Kim during a recent visit.

But the Chinese official said that Kim still had a sharp mind “despite suffering a stroke, and retained his reputation as quite a good drinker”.

The cables also show even the Chinese had a hard time determining what was happening in North Korea. One cable showed China did not believe Kim was grooming his youngest son to succeed him, although time showed that Kim moved to do just that.

The cables also reflected little knowledge among US and Chinese officials about North Korea’s uranium enrichment programme. It was believed to be in the initial phases until earlier this month, when North Korea revealed a fully operational uranium enrichment facility.

Filed under: Diplomacy

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