LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The death of Kim Jong Il in North Korea and the rise of his son Kim Jong Un have threatened to undermine the delicate balance of political forces in northeast Asia. It's a complicated part of the world, involving the interests of a still-divided Korean peninsula along with China, the U.S., as well as Japan and Russia. NPR's Mike Shuster has more from Seoul.
MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: The public message is the same, whether it's from South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, here in his New Year's televised speech, or from any other leader in northeast Asia.
PRESIDENT LEE MYUNG-BAK: (Through translator) The situation on the Korean peninsula is now at a new turning point. But there should be new opportunities amid changes and uncertainty. Our most critical goal is the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.
SHUSTER: Stability. Stability has been the watchword since Kim Jong Il died on December 17th. The problem is stability means different things for different nations. China is probably the regional player that most wants things to stay exactly the same under his son, Kim Jong Un. Chinese leaders talk about economic reform for North Korea, but any sweeping changes in North Korean economic policy would mean uncertainty. That could spark disturbances inside North Korea: refugees streaming across the border into China, unpredictable events.
The Chinese don't want unpredictable, says Young-ho Park, analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
YOUNG-HO PARK: For China and for the Chinese political leadership, it is their interest to keep the current North Korean system intact and to keep the current status of the Korean peninsula.
SHUSTER: China's leaders see their role as a kind of guardian for the weak and isolated North Korean state. But at the same time, they have their eyes fixed on farther horizons, especially the presence in northeast Asia of the United States. Park says Beijing uses North Korea as a buffer to keep the influence and power of the U.S. away from its border, even as it seeks to extend its influence to counter the U.S.
PARK: I personally think the Chinese policy toward the Korean peninsula is fundamentally based on their strategic posture, vis-a-vis the United States.
SHUSTER: As for the strategic posture of the United States, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell visited Seoul yesterday and repeated the U.S. commitment to stability, through its alliance with South Korea, formally known as the Republic of Korea, or ROK.
KIRK CAMPBELL: The United States and the ROK remain strongly committed to the preservation of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, to denuclearization and to broader regional security and to the well-being and welfare of the people of North Korea.
SHUSTER: When the focus turns to nuclear weapons, stability faces enormous challenges. And here's where the United States has a huge stake. For the U.S., getting rid of North Korea's nuclear weapons is a fundamental strategic goal. Since 2003, there have been sporadic nuclear negotiations, but the process known as the Six Party Talks has been moribund for several years.
Daniel Pinkston, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Seoul, urges the parties to restart the talks for a very simple reason.
DANIEL PINKSTON: It might be worthwhile to return to the talks, first of all to test the intentions of the new leadership and to see whether or not there is any change in their intentions and motivations.
SHUSTER: But like many analysts, Pinkston is not optimistic that North Korea can be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons, because, he says, the change in leadership in Pyongyang is well aware of what happened to other like-minded governments in 2011.
PINKSTON: Many North Korean officials privately and publicly have mentioned the Libyan case. And when Muammar Gadhafi was killed, many of them said that was very foolish of him to abandon his WMD programs, and that Gadhafi probably wished that he still had his nuclear weapons program.
SHUSTER: Stability does mean different things to different nations. Paradoxically, it's probably fair to say these different views of stability make northeast Asia so volatile and unpredictable.
Mike Shuster, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.