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A New Era In North Korea, Yet Little Has Changed


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. It's been only three days since the funeral for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and in that time his son, Kim Jong Un has been bestowed with the title supreme leader and elevated to the rank of supreme commander of the North Korean army. But with North Korean pledging to defend its new leader unto death, at the same time it's issuing a series of scathing attacks on the government of South Korea, it looks like the new leadership is ringing in the year with the same old politics. NPR's Mike Shuster has more from Seoul.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: Sea of fire is one of the favorite phrases of North Korean propagandists. Sure enough, it popped up over the weekend in the comments of a television anchor in Pyongyang rejecting any change in policy towards South Korea and its conservative president, Lee Myung-bak.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) We will never be associated with leaning back government. It's a disgrace for the innocent and good people of DPRK to be associated with leaning back government. Our military and our people's bloody tears will follow the puppeted traitor until the end. And it will form a sea of fire which will burn them up, leaving nothing.

SHUSTER: DPRK stands for the formal name of the North Korean state, Democratic People's Republic of Korea. For its part, the South Korean government has acted calmly since Kim Jong Il died on December 17th, dismissing any talk of a crisis. The comments of Choi Bo-sun, the spokesman for South Korea's unification ministry, were typical.

CHOI BO-SUN: (Through Translator) With the DPRK leader's death, uncertainty on the Korean peninsula increased a lot. So, we will watch the changed situation cautiously and we will respond promptly with flexibility and initiative to any changes on the peninsula.

SHUSTER: South Korean President Lee released a New Year's statement late Saturday night. It did not even mention North Korea. North Korea also released a New Year's statement asserting that the whole nation stands ready to defend its new leader. But that statement also emphasized the need to focus on North Korea's economic problems, including the burning issue, in its words, of food shortages. Throughout this mourning period, North Korea has not mentioned its relations with the United States at all. But in the weeks before Kim's death, the United States and North Korea held four sets of meetings to discuss restarting nuclear negotiations, the human rights situation in North Korea and the possibility of food aid. That was progress, says Evans Revere, a former State Department expert on Korea.

EVANS REVERE: The United States, I don't think, has changed its policy at all in terms of dealing with the North. But I think it would be fair to say that the North has changed its approach in dealing with the United States and that the shift that we've seen in North Korea in terms of being willing to sit down with the United States and to talk about the possibility of accepting a range of American preconditions in order for talks to start, those things reflect a shift in North Korea, a willingness to engage that is primarily driven, in my view, by economic necessity.

SHUSTER: The new leadership in Pyongyang has not disavowed these contacts nor has it publicly signaled its embrace of them. Evans Revere says the best approach is to wait and see.

REVERE: And not jump to any conclusions that the change that we saw in the aftermath of the death of Kim Jong Il is going to result in provocations or a breakdown in dialogue or a great turnabout in policy. Those things might happen but there's certainly no indication at this point.

SHUSTER: For now, North Korea has turned more inward. The first priority appears to be: cement the nation's loyalty to the callow young man who will continue the rule of the Kims. His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, led North Korea for 46 years. His father, Kim Jong Il, for 17. At 28 or 29, he could conceivably lead North Korea for 40 or 50 years. That may be what some in Pyongyang are most focused on with all the sea of fire talk and defending the new leader to the death, laying the groundwork for a possible century-long Kim dynasty. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.