A number of North Korea experts said, though, that there were some indications that Kim could have retained singular control over the operational use of nuclear weapons, and that he did not share this authority with any other individuals or organizations in the ruling apparatus. If this assumption is correct, it might stand to reason that his son has inherited all nuclear command and control -- barring a potential internal challenge to his new leadership.
If Kim Jong Il exercised sole operational control “for the release of nuclear weapons or the use of nuclear weapons, I would think” that his son alone might now have this responsibility, said Wit, formerly a 15-year State Department official specializing in Northeast Asian security issues.
“We should be concerned about that [possibility] -- or at least interested,” said Robert Carlin, a former CIA analyst who spent more than a decade as head of a State Department division on Northeast Asia. Discussing the ICG appraisal, he called it “simply idle speculation” for outside experts to state with any confidence that Kim did or did not share nuclear weapons command and control, given a near-total blackout on public information about the matter.
Even the organizations named as having possible roles in nuclear command and control are quite murky. While Kim was cited as head of the National Defense Commission, for example, it is unclear whether any such organization even existed, Carlin said. It might have been one of several lofty credentials retained by Kim to bolster his exclusive grip on the reins of power.
“I defy anyone to assert that the National Defense Commission ever met as a body. We don’t know that,” Carlin said in an interview. “In fact, we don’t even think that it was a real organization. For many years, people were pretty convinced -- even North Koreans -- that it was a paper organization and it had no real staffing or anything like that.”
Similarly, there is much about the post-Kim Jong Il leadership transition process that cannot be understood at this early date.
“We know that from September 2010, several [Kim] family members also took prominent roles in the party and various parts of the bureaucracy, I think in support of this process,” said Scott Snyder, a Korea specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations who spoke with reporters during a Monday teleconference. “What we don’t know is whether or not the process will go forward, as Kim Jong Il had planned, in Kim Jong Il’s absence.”
One expert source said that leading up to this event, there were some clear indications that Pyongyang has exercised strong security over its nuclear weapons, an approach that might offer some reassurance against the possibility of accidents or misuse following Kim’s demise.
“I’ve had some glimpses into their command and control,” said the source, who demanded anonymity in discussing a highly sensitive diplomatic and military issue.
“Their security for [nuclear] fuel rods is very strict… involving armed guards and secure storage,” said this issue expert. “Based on that, I would assume their security measures for nuclear weapons would be extremely strict.”
Carlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said it is plausible that North Korea has patterned its controls over nuclear weapons on what it has learned from Russia, China, and perhaps even Pakistan.
“Yes, [Kim] had his own unique governing style, but they’re not crazy. And they know this is a pretty dangerous enterprise and they don’t want anything to go wrong,” he told GSN. “So maybe they look to what other people are doing, as well.”
The chill in U.S.-North Korean relations -- following the breakdown of the six-party talks three years ago -- has left Washington with few avenues for developing an understanding of Pyongyang’s nuclear controls, Carlin said.
The forum -- which includes China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia, and the United States -- was last held in December 2008. The approach has sought to reward North Korea for making progress toward shutting down its nuclear program in exchange for foreign assistance and international security guarantees.
Although Pyongyang has conducted two known underground tests of its atomic devices, the United States has refused to acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear-armed nation. That has come back to bite Washington in perhaps some unanticipated ways, Carlin said.
“For the last two or three years, since the first North Korean nuclear test, we have officially held to the line that we will not recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state,” he said. “And as a consequence, we have not been able to engage them on any of these serious issues that go to the reality of the situation, which is [that] they do possess nuclear weapons.
“So questions of command and control -- which would be very difficult to get at in any case -- we haven’t even begun to formulate the question with them,” Carlin said.