Diplomatic efforts to woo North Korea back to the negotiating table in a bid to end its nuclear weapons drive may have to take a back seat following Kim Jong Il's death as his successor son strives to consolidate his position.
The death announcement Monday couldn't have come at a worse time. The United States was preparing this week to announce a major donation of food aid to North Korea after secret negotiations between the archrivals.
The aid announcement, according to some diplomats, was to be followed by an agreement by North Korea to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program, paving the way for the resumption of multilateral talks that have been suspended for about three years.
"Everything is on hold now," said Victor Cha, a former White House chief for Asian affairs.
Last week’s talks about food aid and the possibility this week of another U.S.-North Korea bilateral meeting on the nuclear issue are "probably all 'OBE'—overtaken by events," he said.
"These bits of diplomacy constituted small bites at the apple. We are now talking about the whole apple," said Cha, now an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Kim's successor son, Kim Jong Un, in his 20's and a political novice, is expected to be preoccupied firming up the dynastic transfer of power amid fears of a power struggle within the powerful military or the political elite.
The senior Kim had used North Korea’s nuclear arms to extort humanitarian and other aid from the United States and South Korea to attend atomic talks that involve the three nations and China, Russia, and Japan.
North Korea has adequate plutonium to build up to seven nuclear weapons, according to reports. It is unclear whether Pyongyang can manufacture nuclear warheads for its missiles. Some experts estimate that North Korea has at least 1,000 missiles, including some with a range of more than 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles).
The question is whether Kim Jong Un can fill his father's big boots. The senior Kim was known to be ruthless to remain the undisputed national leader and commander of the armed forces, the fifth-largest in the world.
"With Kim’s death, the prospects for regional negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program and other issues in the near term are very low," said Richard Bush, a North Asia expert at Washington-based Brookings Institution.
"The successor regime will have to consolidate itself before it will be prepared to engage the United States, South Korea, and others. There had been movement toward such engagement, but little can happen now," he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has been cautious in dealing with North Korea since it pulled out of the six-nation nuclear talks in 2009 and conducted its second nuclear test.
A year later, the North raised the stakes by launching a deadly artillery raid on a South Korean island. It was also accused of sinking a South Korean warship, killing more than 40 sailors.
Kim Jong Un may match or even better his father's nuclear brinkmanship, some experts said.
"The younger Kim will need to show his toughness to the military and will likely engage in more atrocious acts in the years to come," said Dan Blumenthal, a former senior official at the Pentagon.
"Things will not get better either for North Koreans or for us as long as this regime is in place. Their survival now depends upon their nuclear program."
Blumenthal, an Asia expert at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, said North Korea's nuclear weapons program has given them what it wants: "insurance against American or allied pressure to change" and "there is no hope of persuading the Kim family to give up its programs, stop its illicit activity, or end its cruelty."
He called for a policy of regime change—"unrelenting pressure until the Kim family collapses and members of the Party or the military are ready to negotiate radical reform and then unification" under South Korean rule.
But experts at U.S. research group Stratfor believe Kim’s death does not necessarily put an end to recently revived discussions with the United States and others over North Korea’s nuclear program.
"Pyongyang has increasingly felt pressured by its growing dependence on China, and these nuclear talks provide the potential to break away from that dependence in the long term," Stratfor argued.
CSIS analyst Cha believes China is the only country that "has eyes" inside of North Korea and may have to step forward to ease concerns over the security on the Korean peninsula.
The United States and South Korea have been appealing to China to engage in a dialogue about possible instability in the North since Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in 2008.
"Beijing has been reluctant, but now it has little choice in the matter. Washington, Seoul, and Beijing must stay on the same page."