Kim’s death raises immediate questions about the future — and the stability — of perhaps the world’s most isolated state, which for six decades has been held together by the Kim family personality cult. Kim was deified by state media, described as the “Dear Leader.” A weeping television anchor Monday told North Korea of Kim’s death.
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 conducted at least one short-range missle test, the Associated Press reported, citing South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
Yonhap quoted two South Korean military officials saying that such a test most likely was part of a routine drill and was not related to Kim Jong Il’s death.
The death of Kim Jong Il means that power will likely go to his youngest son Kim Jong Eun, whose ability to hold the country together with the same rigidity as his predecessor is still unknown. As Chico Harlan explained:
Kim Jong Eun will be one of the world’s most unknown — and significant — power-holders, potentially capable of reforming the country, maintaining it, or letting it slip into chaos.
The youngest of Kim Jong Il’s three sons, he has neither the resume nor the experience to control the country in the rigid manner of his father and grandfather, experts say.
For security experts in Seoul and Washington, the younger Kim’s rise turns North Korea from a truculent state into a volatile one, far likelier to threaten its neighbors or show signs of civil unrest.
Until late last year, most North Koreans had never seen Kim Jong Eun’s adult photograph. Pyongyang’s propaganda office had begun taking cautious steps to build the successor’s personality cult — but the process was designed to last years, not months.
Analysts who have studied North Korea’s second attempted power transfer fear several scenarios, including a revolt by the military or a fight for power among older party members, who view Kim Jong Eun as vulnerable target, too young to have his own allies and loyalists.
“This is really the worst possible nightmare for the North Korean state — this sudden death, and for the son to be taking over,” said Victor Cha, the White House’s former director of Asian affairs. “This could collapse before our eyes.”
For all of the concern over the succession process in North Korea, some see a unique opportunity to break the isolation that has characterized the country under Kim Jong Il. As Keith Richburg reported:
The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has set off a wave of anxiety among the country’s neighbors and beyond, focused on possible instability on the Korean Peninsula and the unpredictable nature of the succession in the isolated, nuclear-armed country.
But along with the concern were some cautious expressions of optimism, and hopes that the sudden and unexpected leadership transition in Pyongyang might offer an opportunity for the country to pursue desperately needed reform of its dysfunctional economic system.
That latter view was most often heard here in China, North Korea’s principal ally and benefactor, whose leaders are known to have been pressing Kim to pursue economic reforms.
China sent troops to fight alongside North Koreans during the Korean War, and Mao Zedong once said the two neighbors’ relationship was “as close as lips and teeth.” But where China since 1979 has pursued a policy of economic liberalization and opening to the outside world, North Korea has remained mired in a 1950s-style Stalinist system that brought widespread poverty, food shortages and a shrinking industrial base.
“The North Korean regime is under huge pressure to survive right now,” said Zhu Feng, an international studies professor at Peking University. “It’s almost impossible for North Korea to continue blocking its people from the outside world or stay isolated any longer. If the North Korean regime hopes to survive, they must make some changes.”
Zhu said the transfer of power to Kim’s son, Kim Jong Eun, probably will take place without a power struggle. But the younger Kim might have less control than his father, and face more pressure for reform.
“Right now, North Koreans lack food and clothing,” Zhu said. “In such a society, the death of the old leader will have a huge impact on society and cause people to reflect and change their ideas.”
Others here agreed, saying the transition could provide an opportunity. Outsiders — particularly the United States and South Korea — need to move cautiously to take advantage of the diplomatic window and avoid provoking the regime hard-liners, they said.
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