Editor's Note: Ambassador Stephen Bosworth was United States Special Representative for North Korea Policy from March 2009 to October 2011. He has also served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea, the Philippines and Tunisia. Currently, he serves as Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Amar C. Bakshi: What do you make of Kim Jong-un?
Stephen Bosworth: He is an unknown quality. We don't know exactly how old he is. He spent a couple of years in Switzerland, studying at a middle school there where he was portrayed as the son of the embassy chauffeur.
I can’t believe that he’s going to have any real authority within the system in North Korea without the concurrence of all senior military and civilian leaders. They’re not engaged in some sort of a suicide mission. They’re not about to turn their fate over to a 28-year-old or 29-year-old untested person, even if he is Kim Jong-il’s son and Kim Il-sung’s grandson.
Amar C. Bakshi: So who is the power behind the throne? Is it the party? Is it the military?
Stephen Bosworth: I think it’s largely the military, but senior party officials obviously also have some influence. We know that Kim Jong-un’s uncle and aunt have particularly important roles at present. But I think this is not that dissimilar from the situation that has always existed. I think that Kim Jong-il was loath to overrule significant elements in the military or in the party. So they spent a lot of time trying to work toward consensus.
Amar C. Bakshi: So you don’t expect significant change under Kim Jong-un?
Stephen Bosworth: No, I really don’t. Now, on the other hand, that doesn’t mean that bad things could not happen, because, in fact, if they begin to sense that either the outside world is pressing in on them, or that the outside world is ignoring them, they may well do things designed to get our attention - perhaps missile tests, nuclear tests, things designed to show that they remain a force to be dealt with and that they are not to be ignored.
Amar C. Bakshi: Do you imagine talks starting at any point in the near future?
Stephen Bosworth: I think they could. I’ve stopped trying to predict what North Korea may or may not do. I think that there is a good possibility that we may see a resumption of talks sometime in 2012. But I certainly wouldn’t bet on it….
Our problem with North Korea has to the fact that it is a particularly difficult foreign policy challenge for our system of government to work with and to work on. We have a tendency to believe that problems exist to be solved - not to be managed, but solved. And in the case of North Korea, that, in my judgment, requires that we talk to them in a serious fashion.
And right now, in an election year, not only an election year in the United States, but an election in South Korea and a year of changing leadership in China, I think that we’re going to find that there is a changing environment within which talks would have to take place.
So I think it’s unlikely - but not impossible - that the North Koreans are going to be prepared to take the sort of strategic risk that they would have to take in order to make talks with us productive. Neither do I think that it’s likely in an election year that we’re going to take the sort of public relations and strategic risk that would be required if we are going to make the talks productive.
So I hope that we can do more than just manage to maintain stability over the current year, but I’m not all that optimistic.