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What Comes After Kim Jong-il

The reported death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is already leaving people wondering about whether his son, Kim Jong-un, is ready for power.

The Diplomat speaks with Scott Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, about the reported death of Kim Jong-il.


Was there any indication, or any rumors, that Kim Jong-il's death was imminent?

In fact, Kim Jong-il had been keeping a relatively rigorous schedule, and it seemed like he had recovered better than many had expected during 2011.

Speculation is now bound to turn to the succession. His youngest son, Kim Jong-un, is seen as the most likely successor – can we assume that he will be taking over?

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Kim Jong-un has clearly been designated as the successor, fully backed by Kim Jong-il and his family. He has been named the head of Kim Jong-il's funeral committee. It’s likely that there’s a collective leadership system in place to manage during the transition, but all developments over the course of the past year have signaled that Kim Jong-un is the expected successor, and that he has been gaining power within the North Korean system in preparation for taking on this role.

Has he had time to consolidate power?

This transition comes much earlier than was the case when Kim Jong-il took over for his father, Kim Il-sung. There will inevitably be speculation regarding whether or not the military will support the succession process. But it’s too early to tell for sure what sorts of difficulties may arise as the younger Kim takes the reins of power.

How much of a risk of instability is there now?

I believe the initial shock of transition will work to the advantage of those who support the anticipated succession arrangements, but it’s also entirely plausible to imagine that there will be some testing and maneuvering behind the scenes during this relatively fluid period.  

Kim Jong-un has apparently begun to put his own people in place, but it’s hard to imagine that such a process is complete or irreversible. There are many fissures within North Korean society, and relatively few individuals who can bridge those gaps to project power across the system. This works in the favor of the Kim family, which remains at the center of power.  

What we don't know is whether there might be cleavages within the family or other disconnects between the family and the bureaucracy that might emerge as points of conflict as the process unfolds.

How do you think average North Koreans will view his death?

Average North Koreans know how to mourn, and will do so collectively en masse for Kim Jong Il in the same way that they did it for Kim Il Sung. But the intensity of personal grief is likely to be muted this time compared to Kim Il-sung's death. This announcement is probably being greeted by great uncertainty regarding the future and what the transition will mean for life in the North.