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: