Security analysts and officials from Seoul to Washington have long believed that Kim’s death would double as a pivot point on the Korean Peninsula. But that poses a threat of its own, as North Korea tries to pass power to Kim’s youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, who is in his 20s.
In an announcement Monday, North Korea called Kim Jong Eun a “great successor” and urged its people to follow his leadership. The state also test-fired two short-range missiles off its east coast, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
Yonhap quoted an official in Seoul as saying the test most likely was part of a routine drill and was not related to Kim Jong Il’s death.
Until late last year, the younger Kim had lived his life almost entirely behind a wall of privacy. But as his father struggled with his health, he accelerated a controversial power transfer and, in late September 2010, named Kim Jong Eun to several top military and political posts. This year, when the elder Kim made his customary visits to military camps and factories across the country, his son often accompanied him — not as an equal, but as a trainee.
One concern, described by numerous Korean security experts, is that the younger Kim could face opposition from more senior North Korean officials, including Jang Song Thaek, who had been acting as a caretaker for the transition. In recent years, Kim Jong Il tried to minimize the power of other older party members, often demoting them — sometimes even banishing them to the countryside — so they wouldn’t form allies of their own.
Since taking over from his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994, Kim kept a tight hold on North Korean society, using the “juche” ideology — emphasizing national self-reliance to rationalize strict crackdowns on political opposition. Those who spoke out against the Kim family were sent to prison camps, defectors say, along with their parents and children.
The country’s leadership maintained a ban on most communication: Most North Koreans, even now, have no access to the Internet. Several hundred thousand North Koreans now have cellphones, but they can make only domestic calls.
As a result, North Korea dealt with almost no dissent — a stark contrast to Arab countries that this year revolted against authoritarian rulers. For almost two decades now, North Korea has defied predictions of its demise. Kim’s death sparked new concerns that the country could become less stable.