The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on December 17, 2011, came just as the United States was attempting to restart denuclearization talks with his repressive regime. Those talks were to be a bilateral offshoot of stalled six-party talks. Most experts see any North Korean movement toward denuclearization as tied to U.S. offers of nutritional aid to its chronically malnourished people, although the U.S. State Department has not officially acknowledged "linkage" between the two issues.
Kim Jong Il became leader of North Korea (officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK) upon the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994. He died of a massive heart attack. Kim's health had apparently been deteriorating for some time, and reports out of Korea suggest he had a stroke in 2008.
Kim's third son, Kim Jong Un, is assuming power in the DPRK. U.S. officials and foreign policy watchers can only guess how Kim Jong Un's ascendancy will help -- or hurt -- U.S. and North Korean relations.
Throughout Kim Jong Il's regime, North Korea alternately adhered to and rejected attempts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. In 2003, largely at China's urging, it agreed to participate in "Six-Party" talks with the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea. At the same time, however, Kim moved to reinvigorate North Korea's nuclear program.
In 2006 and again in 2009, North Korea exploded two nuclear devices. Both explosions amounted to less than a kiloton of power each, but they underscored Kim's intransigence in the nuclear talks.
North Korea has also experimented with intermediate and long-range missiles. It has had Soviet-era "Scud" missiles (similar to those Iraq fired at Israel in the Gulf War, 1991) since 1969. It has test fired the potentially intercontinental-capable Taepodong 1 and Taepodong 2 missiles with varied degrees of success. It has not made nuclear warheads, nor has it demonstrated that any of its missiles could carry them.
On December 15, 2011, Glyn Davies, the U.S. State Department Special Representative for North Korea Policy, told reporters that the U.S. and China had been actively engaged in trying to bring North Korea back to denuclearization talks. Those talks would be both bilateral -- between the U.S. and North Korea -- and between the so-called Six-Parties.
Kim Jong Il's death, of course, stalls those attempts until after a mourning period. In a statement following Kim's death, the United States said, "It is our hope that the new leadership of the DPRK will choose to guide their nation on to the path of peace by honoring North Korea's commitments, improving relations with neighbors, and respecting the rights of its people."
Asked to explain exactly what the U.S. wanted from Kim's successor, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, "We want to see the new leadership of the DPRK take their country in the direction of denuclearization, in the direction of compliance with their international obligations and commitments. We want to see them have better relations, particularly with South Korea, but obviously, with all of the neighbors, and then respecting the rights of their people."
Renewed denuclearization talks may be tied to an American offer of nutritional assistance to millions of North Korea's hungry or starving citizens. Davies said "nutritional assistance talks with representatives of the DPRK government" were to have begun on December 15. He said, however that "there isn't any linkage between this issue or the provision of nutritional assistance and this broader discussion . . . [of] denuclearization."
Regardless, most media outlets do see linkage between the two issues. Nuland said that any U.S. food aid would, itself, have to be tied to American ability to monitor its distribution.
North Korea operates on a "military first" policy, meaning that resources first go its 1.2 million-man army. Thus, many civilians have little to eat. The U.S. has, in the past, provided food assistance, but insisted on monitors in the country to ensure the food was not diverted to the military. In 2009, North Korea ended American food aid and requested the U.S. recall its monitoring personnel.
The Washington Post reported that the U.S. was considering sending high protein food products such as Plumpy'nut peanut paste to North Korea if food aid resumes. The U.S. has effectively sent Plumpy'nut to starving Somalis, and the government considers it less liable to be diverted to the Korean military than more traditional foodstuffs.