The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il increases the likelihood that the stress on the multiple fault lines in Korean society will reach the point of breaking. Secret talks with China to plan for contingencies have long been overdue. They are needed now more than ever.
As many note, in the initial phase of the succession, the roughly 600,000 in the privileged North Korean elite can be expected to adhere to each other. The operating principle is the old phrase from Ben Franklin: all hang together, or all hang separately.
For the ordinary abused North Korean, the repression system will retard efforts to seize the opportunity for change presented by a new and untested leader. But as time passes, the fault lines can be expected to make themselves felt, and not improbably through violence.
There are huge generational issues. Can a twenty-something Kim Jong-un, a four star general in an army in which he has never served, impose his will on 80-year-old marshals? Will key army, party, and government officials be replaced by much younger associates of the new leader or will they resist?
There are obvious issues of competency. Will seasoned officials provide the advice Kim the third wants or the advice he needs? Will he accept it, or will it feed his suspicions? Will he continue his father’s legacy of anti-reform policies, or will he give greater scope to market forces?
There’s a family-based regency of Aunt Kim Kyong Hui and her husband Jang Sung Taek. Regencies have a troubled history in societies with strong Confucian influence, with power gravitating to one authoritative individual. There would be no need to illustrate this phenomenon to Chinese who know their history.
There are world record economic issues of poverty and mismanagement. The elites are rapidly becoming more knowledgeable about the outside world and their South Korean cousins and how they compare with the “workers’ paradise” in the North. They have the Internet, proliferating cell phones, and radios, all easily obtained through the pervasive corruption of the system. Increasingly, these new outlets are reaching ordinary citizens, as well.
The military must be conflicted. Senior officers were replaced shortly after Kim Jong-un was made a four star general. The air force and navy have been starved for resources and arms by policies to support the nuclear weapons program and the reluctance of China to make up for the shortfalls. Will there be a contest for control over the nuclear materials and weapons, or will we face the proliferation challenge of “loose nukes”?