Tuesday's public viewing of Kim Jong Il's body drove the point home. It's the end of an era for North Korea.
Or is it?
Korea Policy Institute's Christine Ahn says that a shift in figureheads doesn't necessarily signal any larger or corresponding shifts for North Korea.
In fact, what's coming to the fore more than anything else is how confident North Korea's political elite is in the continuation of the Kim dynasty, with the emergence of Kim Jong Un into the spotlight.
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"Look what's coming out of the Pentagon," Ahn said. "They are all calm. They know it is not about to collapse and that it is a very stable system."
But even if it isn't a radical upheaval, Kim Jong Il's death does present an opportunity for the US, and other countries involved in the on-again-off-again six-party talks, to renew dialogue and push for reform.
Below, Ahn, who serves as KPI executive director, talks about how important it is that talks happen, how dangerous it is to misread North Korea, and how Kim Jong Un could be a beacon of hope after all.
GlobalPost: What can the US and other countries do at this juncture to bring about change in North Korea?
Christine Ahn: The US and especially those countries involved in the six-party talks — South Korea, Japan, China and Russia — can promote engagement and dialogue.
We were on the brink of a diplomatic breakthrough last week, when US and North Korean envoys met in Beijing to discuss the US giving food aid to the North in exchange for halting its uranium enrichment program.
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Now, with Kim Jong Il's death, things are not looking good.
Why is that?
It has to do, I think, with the perception we have that North Korea is a basket-case country that is constantly flip-flopping on its decisions.
In fact, they are the ones that have been very consistent with what they are demanding. North Korea's negotiator, Kim Gye-gwan, the vice-minister of Foreign Affairs, has been the same person for years. Meanwhile, the administration always changes in the US, and the North Korean negotiators have to deal with new people.
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North Korea has historically used the six-party talks to have bilateral talks with the US. They have pressed for the normalization of relations with the US, including economic relations and a lifting of sanctions, as well as a formal end to the Korean War with a peace treaty.
We need to engage in dialogue with North Korea and finally end the war.
Can we be certain talks will be productive? This could be a time of tremendous upheaval in North Korea.
Look what's coming out of Pentagon. They are all calm. They know it is not about to collapse and that it is a very stable system. Even though there is a figure-head shift, we need to engage with them as if they are not about to collapse.
It's a terrible mistake to think it’s on the brink of collapse. Mainly because it allows North Korea to expand its arsenal of weapons, and also because there is tremendous and immense suffering of the people.
With so much uncertain about North Korea, how can you be sure they're not about to collapse?
For one, they have been preparing for this transition since 2008. Kim Jong Il has been ill for some time and Kim Jong Un was presented as his heir apparent last year.
And partly knowing that there has been a pervasive misperception that Kim Jong Il was an all-encompassing leader, when in fact there is a whole circle of political elites making decisions.
Now, we don’t know enough about that circle. Analysts have talked to defectors, but they still can't quite get at this inner circle. But I believe it would be right to conjecture that this body has things under control. Most of them are in their 60s and 70s, and they already went through a major transition from Kim Sung Il to Kim Jong Il in 1994.
We like to say that North Korea is a dictatorship, but really it's more of a monarchy. This political leadership likes that there is the continuation of the family.
What can the US do to make sure talks happen?
Our policy on North Korea has been called "strategic patience," but really it's been more like four years of "strategic abandonment." We've been neglecting that region of the world, which isn't helping anybody. Now, at the end of Obama's term, he's starting to pay attention. The diplomatic breakthrough last week was part of that.
We need to continue bilateral discussions, whether it's through six-party talks or through separate bilateral talks.
How do we do this? The recipe is rather standard, and in some ways we can just go back to 2007. Food aid in exchange for stalling uranium-enrichment programs. They want sanctions lifted and to be taken off the terrorist list. And North Korea has to feel that the US will be good on its word.
But hasn't North Korea gone back on its word?
In that sense it's been tit-for-tat. There has been a pattern with each US administration. Clinton, Bush and Obama have come in with a hardline that they don't want to engage with North Korea, and then North Korea acts belligerently because that's the way they will get US attention. Unfortunately, that has been the pattern, and that's what has to change.
I think Kim Jong Il’s death presents a huge opportunity start discussions on a positive note.
So, you see this as an opportunity for a fresh start?
North Korea as a nation grew out of paranoia. War was the genesis of the nation. They literally built their society from unerground shelters and caves. Farmers were farming at nighttime because of massive air raids. That's a disappearing generation now.
We don't know much about Kim Jong Un, but we do know that he didn't experience the war. He's not of that generation. Also, he went to school in Switzerland.
So, while we don't know much about him, we know he's a different generation with experience living outside North Korea. There is hope in that difference.