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?