North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is dead. North Korean state news reported that the reclusive leader passed away Saturday morning while riding a train after suffering a massive heart attack; the result of “great mental and physical strain.”
The South Korean military has been placed on emergency alert, although as of this writing, had not elevated from Defcon 4. At this time, there has been no movement of North Korean forces stationed on the opposite side of the De-Militarized Zone.
Focus now turns to the presumptive heir of the “Dear Leader,” his third son, Kim Jong-un. Indeed, Jong-il’s failing health has led to the speculation that 2012, the 100th anniversary of his father, Kim Il-sung’s birth, would see Kim Jong-un anointed as the new leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The goal of this live transition was to avert the internal turmoil which followed the death of Kim Il Sung and the accession of Kim Jong-il.
However, the death of Kim Jong-il casts immediate doubt on the succession of Kim Jong-un and has the potential to greatly destabilize North Korea. Kim Jong-un is only in his mid-twenties, and a political novice. Indeed, he was only named Kim Jong-il’s heir apparent and elevated in status in 2010. Unlike Jong-il, who had by the time of Kim Il-sung’s death spent decades deeply involved within the government, developing useful political allies, Jong-un has no such experience. This is partly due to his young age, but also due to his Jong-il’s reported fear of any of his sons developing a power base independent of their father, lest they challenge his authority.
Furthermore, following Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, Jong-il moved to gain the support of the powerful military through adopting a national policy of “military first.” Jong-il’s policy of promoting the military over all other national interests was instrumental in his ability to first consolidate and maintain power and has left the military as a major power broker in the succession. This was a major reason behind Jong-un’s elevation to four-star general and a senior position on the National Defense Commission. Reports indicate that it is likely that while Kim Jong-un will be publicly elevated, his uncle, Jang Song-thaek or a group of senior officials will hold the levers of power until Jong-un has acquired the necessary experience and support. Gaining the support of the military will be crucial to Jong-un’s ability to consolidate power. Indeed, the stability of North Korea will likely hinge upon the decisions made by the military and their willingness to accept the accession of Kim Jong-un.
It is likely, however, that Kim Jong-il’s death will presage a pronounced shift away from the slight thawing in relations with the international community as the DPRK focuses on internal issues; in effect, placing a hold on external matters as it did following the death of Kim Il-sung. In particular, this will likely have profound effects on recent attempts to persuade North Korea to return to the Six Party Talks. Furthermore, until the situation in the North has stabilized, a process which could take years, even in best-case scenarios, it is unlikely that any subsequent regime concerned with survival would be willing to give up its nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, it is certainly possible that an emerging regime would be likely to brandish their nuclear weapons both as a warning to deter external aggression as well as a bargaining chip with which to secure international legitimacy through recognition as well as aid.
Aid will be particularly vital to North Korea in the near-term as it continues to contend with a worsening humanitarian condition due to food shortages compounded by the rising costs of grain and other staples. Conditions are likely to worsen in coming months as the harshness of winter sets in. Feeding its population will be a daunting early challenge for the new regime.
North Korea’s pressing need to secure significant amounts of international aid presents a possible avenue to improved relations with the international community; however, such an outcome is unlikely. Rather, North Korea is likely to tighten its ties with China and seek assistance through its well-established channels to Beijing. Indeed, this will highlight North Korea’s “power of weakness,” vis-à-vis China. Worried that internal strife will lead to a total collapse of the North Korean state, the Chinese will be unable to resist North Korean entreaties for assistance. While this may not be an ideal outcome, it will allow for some modicum of stability within the DPRK while it sorts itself out, and will hopefully forestall complete collapse and the onset of a humanitarian and potentially military crisis the likes of which we have never before seen.
Greg Chaffin is a research assistant for the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London.