Foreign Policy Blogs

Dear Leader to Young Gun Un: Who has the North Korean Nuke Football?

Dear Leader to Young Gun Un:  Who has the North Korean Nuke Football?

REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic/Files

With the sudden demise of “Dear Leader” and cult personality/despot Kim Jong Il several days ago, all eyes have turned to his hand-picked successor, Kim Jong Un. While his father had the benefit of nearly twenty years of preparation for his role as megalomaniacal leader, Kim Jong Un has not. This has troubled analysts who rightly point out that the young gun Un now theoretially has his hand on the North Korean nuclear trigger. Elaine Grossman at Global Security Newswire puts a fine point on it. She notes that, while the U.S. and Russia have a “nuclear football” designed to launch nukes from a remote location, “It is not known whether there was any comparable mobile command capability for the North Korean despot. More broadly, questions remain about whose finger can now access the veritable trigger over the nation’s deliverable weapons — if there are any.” Elaine adds that Kim Jong Il’s sudden passing has “…thrust Kim Jong Un, believed to be in his late 20s, into a new leadership role without the benefit of much experience. Whether he has inherited immediate control over North Korea’s possible small handful of nuclear weapons is one among many pressing questions on the minds of Korean Peninsula experts and governments around the world.”

According to Asia specialist Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, “Kim Jong Un is a pale reflection of his father and grandfather. He has not had the decades of grooming and securing of a power base that Jong Il enjoyed before assuming control from his father”. Said Victor Cha, former Asia affairs chief at the U.S. National Security Council, “The most likely scenario for regime collapse has been the sudden death of Kim (Jong Il). We are now in that scenario.” In the December 19th piece in the WaPo by Joby Warrick, Cha added that “there’s really no situation worse than this: to have the most opaque regime with nuclear weapons and without a clear leader….It doesn’t get more dangerous than that”

Citing a 2009 piece by the International crisis Group, Elaine also highlights the fact that Kim Jong Il exerted very tight control over his country’s nuclear assets in a very “personal and centralized system” such that, should he be unable to lead, could “create instability and uncertainty.” Add to this the fact that the fact that Pyongyang is estimated as having enough fissionable material for 6-10 warheads, and you have the makings of a troublesome scenario.

The big question is whether the change in leaders opens up the potential for more fruitful six party talks. Given the extreme secretiveness of the regime – after all, we didn’t even know of Kim Jon Il’s passing until two days after it happened – and its penchant for dramatic flourishes (images of the deceased leader in his big glass box surrounded by “Kimjongilia” flowers), the next several days will be critical is trying to establish what the regime of the young Un will look like and whether or not is will present any opportunities for a breakthrough on the Korean peninsula.

ICG Piece on DPRK



Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.