James Laney (left) and Charles Bedford, co-president of the Atlanta Council on International Relations. Photo by Mike Rast Jr.

A former U.S. diplomat said progress in halting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and opening the country to foreign investment could be jeopardized if dictator Kim Jong Il dies of his reported illness.

James Laney, U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1993-1997, spoke Sept. 11 on how to deal with North Korea at a lunch meeting of the Atlanta Council for International Relations at the Capital City Club.

The subject took on a new urgency as news reports that the Communist leader is sick or has suffered a stroke prompted widespread speculation about what kind of regime would succeed him.

Mr. Laney was in Korea in 1947 as a U.S. counterintelligence officer when the Soviet Union stepped in from the north and Americans from the south to replace the defeated Japanese, splitting the peninsula into the countries it is today.

Kim Jong Il was groomed to take over from his father Kim Il Sung, who ruled the country from its founding in 1948 until his death in 1994.  There is no clear leader to follow the current Mr. Kim.

Mr. Laney said the leader’s death would likely cause a collapse of North Korea’s government, but if the military or a new leader stepped in and achieved stability, it may provide an opportunity to open the country economically.

“Investment follows a sense of security,” Mr. Laney said.  “South Korean capitalists, industrialists, want to go into North Korea.  They say, ‘We’re investing in Malaysia and other places, but they are our kindred.  If we can invest there, things would change.’”

North and south have been cooperating since 2003 to develop the Kaesong Industrial Region, just north of the demilitarized zone, where South Korean companies are allowed to establish operations.

Mr. Laney said that North Koreans’ exposure to capitalist foreign investment has been limited and guarded, but is a positive sign of change.

South Korea has a strong and growing economy, posting 5 percent gross domestic product growth in the last two years, according to the International Monetary Fund.  The fund does not track North Korea’s GDP, but the CIA estimates it is in recession, and a significant percentage of government revenue goes to the military.

Mr. Laney, who served as president of Emory University from 1977 until taking the Korean diplomatic post, said North Korea’s leaders made a decision in the late 1980s to compensate for the country’s inferiority to the south by developing a large army and nuclear weapons.

“They want the respect of the world that goes with failing in every other way, but making the technological breakthrough few countries have,” he said.


Negotiations have deterred North Korea from enhancing its nuclear capability.  Mr. Laney, former President Jimmy Carter and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn have all been involved in those talks in the past.

But it is difficult to talk with the un-democratic, militaristic regime because the U.S. does not want to be seen as propping it up.

“Not to deal with them gives them leeway—they would say necessity—to create more mischief,” Mr. Laney said.  “To deal with them is hard because they are morally opprobrious.”

He said President Bush’s decision not to engage North Korea prompted Mr. Kim to restart the country’s nuclear weapons program in 2000.  The country successfully tested a nuclear device in 2006, and the U.S. went back to the negotiating table.

A major fear if Mr. Kim dies and the country collapses is that North Korea’s nuclear weapons might find their way to the black market and into terrorist hands.

“Having allowed them to develop a nuclear program, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Mr. Laney said.  “So what if the bottle breaks?  Which is likely if Kim Jong Il dies.”

North Korea agreed to disassemble its nuclear plants during the 2007 “six-party talks” with the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, but it is not known how many nuclear weapons the country has and how secure they are.

Mr. Laney added that if Mr. Kim dies the country’s military, which has enjoyed extensive privileges under the father-son dictators, may step in to provide stability.  The country’s powerful generals could choose a leader from among themselves, rule by committee, or prop up one of Mr. Kim’s relatives as a figurehead.

In that case, he said the U.S. has little choice but to negotiate with whichever ruler comes forward.

“What can we do to resolve the problem on the Korean peninsula?,” Mr. Laney said.  “Not war, we don’t a collapse, so what do you do?  Engage.”