Kim Jong-Il Dead, Now What?
Following the news that Kim Jong-Il has died at the age of 69 of a heart attack while traveling by train, international reaction from American and European policymakers and government officials has ranged from reserved calm to almost gleefulness.
William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, said, “This could be a turning point for North Korea. We hope that their new leadership will recognise that engagement with the international community offers the best prospect of improving the lives of ordinary North Korean people.” Rep. Don Manzullo, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia & the Pacific, remarked, “Kim Jong-Il was the epitome of evil, a dictator of the worst kind who ruled his country with an iron fist and dished out constant pain and misery to his people.” The White House issued a statement suggesting that the United States is “closely monitoring reports,” and the U.S. is “in close touch with our allies in South Korea and Japan.”
Underlying any anxiety going through world capitals is concern that Kim Jong-Il’s death could lead to further instability, as Kim Jong-Un, Kim Jong-Il’s successor attempts to assert his bona fides in the wake of his father’s death. “We remain committed to stability on the Korean peninsula, and to the freedom and security of our allies,” the White House statement continued.
Some North Korean analysts have suggested that the shelling of Yeonpyeong island in November of last year by the North Korean military and the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors was likely the result of Kim Jong-Un’s attempts to prove his mettle in the eyes of the North Korean military. Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at International Institute for Strategic Studies, suggests that because the younger Kim lacks the experience in the eyes of the military, the shelling of Yeonpyeong and the sinking of the Cheonan were the results of the inevitable transfer of power from Kim Jong-Il to Kim Jong-Un, “It seems inevitable that it is related to North Korea’s succession,” said Fitzpatrick. “(Kim Jong-Un) has no accomplishments to his record. But if he can appear to be in charge of a military that is achieving some kind of military success, it would probably aid his succession.”
With only two leaders since North Korea’s founding some 60 plus years ago, starting with Kim Il-Sung, then his son, Kim Jong-Il and now Kim Jong-Un, transferring of power from one despot to another is a relatively new phenomenon. Many are watching situations unfold in Pyongyang with reservations. Moreover, despite some progress in the normalization of relations between the two Koreas, including the Kaesong Industrial Region started in 2002, countless shipments of food and oil to desperately poor North Korea and efforts to jumpstart multilateral talks over the denuclearization of North Korea, these efforts were set back by the Yeonpyeong and Cheonan incidents.
With an inevitable power vacuum ensuing in the wake of Kim Jong-Il’s death, the world community is at a strategic disadvantage over how to approach North Korea, and its new anointed leader, Kim Jong-Un. In keeping with tradition, the younger Kim’s new moniker is the “Great Successor.” His father was called the “Dear Leader” and Kim Il-Sung was known as the “Great Leader.” It is likely that because of the cult of personality that comes to surround the previous Kim’s, North Koreans will assume that the younger Kim is deserved of his new title. Kim Jong-Il had led North Korea since his father’s death in the early part of the 1990s and because few world leaders came to know Kim Jong-Il, he was often viewed as erratic and thought to be unreliable as a negotiating partner.
Counterfactually, in keeping with his policy of defense buildups over the welfare of his own people, causing the deaths of thousands of his countrymen through starvation, he was generally viewed as a despot and garnered North Korea the designation as member of the “axis of evil” by former U.S. president, George W. Bush in 2003. Because North Korea is still relatively isolated, being accurately described as autarkic, with little travel there by outsiders without being accompanied by a minder, little is known about political developments within the country’s government.
What is known about the inner workings of the North Korean government would seem to paint a picture of a country controlled by one or two men. In the wake of Kim Jong-Il’s latest bouts with illness that culminated in his death on Saturday, Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-Il’s brother-in-law had amassed a significant amount of power having been promoted by Kim Jong-Il to the National Defense Committee. Acting as a temporary head of state, Jang Song-thaek consolidated power by demoting and eliminating any opponents to his position of power, otherwise acting as a caretaker during the transition of power between the two Kim’s. Having amassed such decision making power within North Korea’s Politburo and its military, Jang Song-thaek would appear to hold sway over how events unfold in the coming months.
Over the long-term, uncertainty will have leaders in Washington and elsewhere scrambling to surmise how to deal with a changed North Korea. In the short-term, the younger Kim will assume his post as North Koreas new head of state amidst pomp and circumstance but with North Korea being so closed to the outside world, it is hard to detect how internal power plays are working themselves out. Clearly, as the U.S.-China Institute’s Mike Chinoy suggests the younger Kim is “the designated successor…This has been in place for a while.”
And while Chinoy suggested to CNN, in the hours after it was announced that Kim Jong-Il had indeed died, he expected that the always-subservient North Koreans would “rally around the flag (and) hunker down.” However, the larger question is what comes next. Will Kim Jong-Un amass the same amount of power as his father? Will North Korea use the event of Kim Jong-Il’s passing to approach the negotiating table over its nuclear program? And finally, will the North Korean government take the necessary steps to open up its closed system and allow for needed reforms?