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Regime change slows in North Korea as threat to region grows

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Thu October 27, 2011
North Korean news reports have shown leader Kim Jong-Il, pictured here in August, traveling around the country.
North Korean news reports have shown leader Kim Jong-Il, pictured here in August, traveling around the country.

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- The pace of North Korea's planned regime change from Kim Jong Il to his twenty-something son appears to have slowed at the moment, two senior U.S. military officials said Thursday.

"The accelerated rate of the succession process has slowed because there's probably not the same sense of urgency, because Kim Jong Il's health doesn't appear to be deteriorating as it was some time ago," one of the officials said.

The officials briefed reporters traveling through Asia with U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Both officials spoke on the condition that their names not be used.

Kim, the father, has been seen in North Korean news reports traveling around the country and visiting China recently, a big change from 2009 when he was thought to be ill with cancer.

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The slower pace does not appear to be a reflection of any lack of confidence in the son, Kim Jong Un.

"We saw in the past some skepticism about a third generation successor and some concern from China expressed publicly," said one of the officials. "But since then, there seems to be this sense in China that there is a much greater degree of confidence in the succession process."

Kim the son, who started his military career as a four-star general, is already being given more official duties by his father. "We see that he's given some responsibility, but not all, to his son," according to one of the officials.

While they hope for the best, the officials are skeptical of North Korea's recent negotiations in Geneva surrounding Pyongyang's nuclear program.

It's seen as a typical North Korean move: to behave well in order to get concessions from the West. In this case, North Korea apparently wants food and other aid to help the nation celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, who ran the country for nearly half a century.

"They are doing anything they possibly can to have gifts and food for all their population and so they remain quiet," said one official.

But being quiet doesn't mean giving up the country's nuclear program.

"They feel that one of the reasons why the regime in Libya fell is because (it) did not retain WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programs. They've told us that," the first official said. "When your negotiating partner says things like that, it's going to raise concern that maybe they are not sincere."

While North Korea has been "accommodating," as Panetta said recently, it is still becoming an even greater threat to the region, according to the officials.

The North Koreans are focusing more on asymmetric warfare -- seeking out the vulnerabilities of their adversaries -- and are growing that part of their military. Pyongyang already has the world's largest special operations force and it's getting bigger.

The country now has a cyber command aimed at using computers to fight its enemies. A slide shown to reporters during Thursday's background briefing referred to how North Korea's "growing cyber threat targets [South Korean] and U.S. forces."

One official said they are seeing more cyber attacks that "we believe are coming out of North Korea" through IP addresses in China.

"It's very hard to attribute to North Korea, but we know they have put cyber capabilities together," the official said.

Perhaps one sign that all is not going well for either Kim Jong Il or his son is that more disaffected citizens are escaping the tightly controlled country. Defector numbers have increased significantly over last 10 years.

"Word that they bring out portends that there is more discontent," one official said. "But I'm afraid it is such a suppressed society it would be very challenging to have an Arab Spring. "

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