Kim Jong-il
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

Kim Jong-il "Is Dead"


North Korean state-run TV is reporting that the country’s leader, Kim Jong-il, is dead.

“His death was announced in an emotional statement read out on national television,” the BBC reported this evening. “The announcer, wearing black, said he had died on Saturday of physical and mental over-work.”

Propagandized until the very end, the country’s Dear Leader was, it is often said, predictable only in his unpredictability. His eventual death had been talked about with much more frequency since he suffered a stroke in 2008 and largely disappeared from public view. When he did finally appear in public, he looked visibly frailer than he had previously.

The presumed successor is Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un. But as The Diplomat security analyst Richard Weitz notes, the sudden demise of his father could complicate the succession.

“This is not good for his son, since he needed more time to get a clean succession,” Weitz says. “It has been a nice quiet year for us and this hopefully will continue. But a weak successor may try to act tough to prove his nationalist credentials.”

Little is known about Kim Jong-un, with outside media forced at times to rely on the musings of the Dear Leader’s former sushi chef for information. As Michael Breen, a Seoul-based analyst and author of 'Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader,' once put it: "We actually know zero about this guy."

Regardless, last year saw the younger Kim’s effective coming out event for the country, when he appeared at a major military parade.

“There’s been a lot of focus on Kim Jong-un as a successor to Kim Jong-il. But if we look overall at the appointments, there have been a variety of balancing mechanisms put in place,” leading Korea watcher Scott Snyder told The Diplomat at the time. “One is the refurbishing of the party as an institution, which suggests that the next leader might not have a military-first policy. Another aspect is actually in the appointment process – Chang Sung-taek (Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission) – didn’t get as much attention in terms of any special party roles.”

“So I think what all this suggests is a structure that’s going to require some of the key power holders to work together in some way — it necessitates a kind of collective approach to leadership. You could look at a collective leadership as a means for managing some kind of regency, or it may simply be characteristic of a third-generation leadership. So I guess I’m questioning whether we can expect the same kind of one-man rule in a successor regime.”

Regardless of who takes over after Kim Jong-il, Weitz believes that any successor “will need time to consolidate power before making major concessions.”

As CBS noted in its report on Kim’s death, he had “been groomed for 20 years to lead the communist nation founded by his guerrilla fighter-turned-politician father and built according to the principle of ‘juche,’ or self-reliance.” The fact that his son has had far less time to prepare, therefore, has inevitably stoked speculation of a possible behind-the-scenes power struggle.

The other key question is, as Minxin Pei noted in The Diplomat last year, whether the West is adequately prepared for Kim’s death.

“Given the lack of strategic trust among the key players in this volatile region, it’s probably a bad idea to count on government officials to have a sudden change of heart,” Pei argued. “Instead, a track-two approach, which consists of well-structured informal discussions and scenario planning among former government officials, academics and policy specialists, may be a first step forward. If nothing else, such privately sponsored efforts should put the most important and potentially most de-stabilizing issues on the table.”

As Pei noted, such an approach could have met some resistance from China, the only country seen as having any influence over Kim. “Even such a modest proposal may be anathema [to them],” he wrote. “But they would be in denial. All they need to do is to take a look at the photo of the sickly Kim and ask themselves a simple question: should we have a Plan B?”

The question now is: did they?

January 2, 2012 at 17:34

Many Korean experts actually believe that Korea will never reunify – quote Dr Michael Shin, “Koreans are too stubborn”. This is actually quite credible – after more than 60 years of separation, how close can the two societies still be? It’s not like North Koreans and South Koreans have been begging to reunify for the last 60 years, they’ve learned to operate as independent states (or not, as the case may be…).
The real question is, is it in anyone’s interest for the countries to reunify? Like is it in anyone’s interest for North and South Sudan to reunify?

December 20, 2011 at 13:32

Cam probably thought of reunification of East/West Germany. But the Berlin wall fell because the Kremlin allowed it.
Yang Zi was not entirely right. The opportunity has to come within…China.

yang zi
December 19, 2011 at 19:37

How do S Korea seize the oppurtunity without been fried by N Korea’s MADs?

The oppurtunity has to come from within. David Axe is right, soft landing!

December 19, 2011 at 16:04

With the disclaimer that we know very little about Kim Jong-un, unification would only seem likely if North Korea fell apart and international intervention was required on the ground to prevent a humanitarian crisis. While that is an ongoing humanitarian crisis in North Korea, a functioning government maintains a powerful military to protect North Korea’s humanitarian crisis from rescue, silly as that sounds. Another possibility is a Wagnerian North Korea opting for a final invasion of South Korea, in which case South Korea would certainly reunify the country by force in its military response.

While the end result of a national family divided being once again reunited, no more destabilizing moves by North Korea, and an end to the vast suffering of the North Koreans under authoritarian dictatorship are all to the good, the likely ways of getting there are all bad. If I missed a happy scenario that is plausible please point it out, but at the moment, reunification will only be won with a great deal of blood. So it is desirable – and it is also not.

December 19, 2011 at 15:56

SKorea should seize this opportunity to bring NKorea under unification for the betterment. The NKorean people have been suffering too long. The world can’t afford another generation of the communist dynasty, where everything would be the same.

December 19, 2011 at 15:46

The division between the two Koreas is an undesirable effect of the Cold War. While I have no liking for the vast cost and effort inherent in Korean unification, I think that Korea is owed its unification by the world. South Korea would no doubt bear the greatest burden of reunification, but the nations who played a role in its separation – Japan, China, Russia, and finally the UN led in its intervention by the US – also owe Korean unification a great deal of help. If Koreans don’t want to reunify that is their decision to make, but if they do, the world owes the its help and support.

yang zi
December 19, 2011 at 14:47

do you want them to be united?

December 19, 2011 at 13:44

What is the possibility of a unification of the two Koreas? I’m very speculative regarding this.

Yang zi
December 19, 2011 at 11:19

One thing is certain, artists will be busy, they will have to put Kim Jong un in the paintings. His title will be respected leader (exactly what he lacks).

No one dares to challenge Kim’s right to succeed except his family. Will his older brother is allowed to attend the funeral ?

Two possible outcomes after a quiet year (expect at least one year moaning period). N. Korea will act more rational with purpose , or drift for few years. The young Kim probably not as paranoid as his farther.

The S. Korea is actually the unkown part. Will they be enboldened to test young Kim? I thing China will mostly wait and see, but I think China should send in a convoy of extra aid to N korea.

China should also start a weapons for bomb project. Send N Korea some modern weapon for its pledge to freeze nuclear development, propose a economic development package to improve people’s lives.

December 19, 2011 at 07:26

Well we knew this was coming, we just hoped that it would happen at a later date.

jennifer powers
December 19, 2011 at 04:32

with the death of the ‘dear leader’ does north korea have a chance for democracy?

Zadoc Paet
December 19, 2011 at 04:08

I’d like to be able to say that yes, his death will effect positive change, but I really doubt it.
POLL: With the death of Kim Jong Il, with North Korea move out of isolation?

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