Possible Power Change After Kim’s Stroke

Although South Korea's intelligence report that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is recovering from a stroke may have allayed imminent regional security fears, South Korea, Japan, China and the US remain on alert on a possible power change in the reclusive nation, especially since international efforts to end Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs are at a deadlock.

So how would the situation play itself out if Kim is more incapacitated than the North Koreans are letting on? Although South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-Hee told the South Korean parliament that Kim, 66, had undergone brain surgery but was recovering, the US and China are in talks about what to do if the government in Pyongyang collapses, according to media reports. The US does not accept intelligence reports from South Korea that he’s on his way to a rapid recovery, US media reported.

In the event of major instability, Defense Minister Lee told the parliament that South Korea is developing an operational plan, long agreed with the US but stalled during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, that responds to possible emergencies in North Korea. The concept plan which preceded it does not include military involvement, while the operational plan does.

In North Korea itself, the effects of a long-term debilitation are unclear. History shows any leaders who lose their health also lose strong leadership--in all ages and in all countries. The ailing North Korean leader may weaken in his ability to hold the country together through less-frequent regular observation of the military forces, on-site inspection tours and field supervision at factories and power plants, all of which are intended to bolster the morale of soldiers and workers and their unswerving loyalty to the top. Kim once said he would visit every single regiment of the People's Army with active forces of more than 1 million while he is alive.

“Because of poor health, Kim Jong-il won’t be able to exercise strong leadership from now on,” Lee Young-hwa, the representative of Rescue the North Korean People! (RENK), a Japan-based citizens' group supporting North Korean asylum seekers in China since early 1990s, said in an interview. “He is politically dead virtually already.”

Lee Young-hwa said the nation’s important decision-making has been through Kim Ok, the Dear Leader’s fourth wife and former secretary, now in her mid 40s, and through his personal secretary’s office, or the Workers’ Party's Office of the Clerk, for the past year. The head of this secretary's office is Kang Sang-chun, Kim Jong-Il's classmate during his studies at Pyongyang's Kim Il-Sung University in the early 1960s, said Lee, who is also an economics professor at Kansai University and a third-generation Korean resident in Japan.

The deterioration of Kim’s health could raise the possibility that some hard-liners with military connections would come to the forefront to capitalize on the power vacuum and cause a great nuisance and a real problem for neighboring countries. This is because, unlike Kim Il-Sung, the founder of North Korea, who carefully laid out the succession of his son throughout the 1970s, Kim Jong-il may have little time to lay the groundwork to hand over control to one of his three sons, all still in their 20s to 30s. The gradual promotion of hereditary politics extending across three generations seems to be becoming more difficult due to the aging Kim’s bad health.

Ruling Workers’ Party heavyweights and military leaders such as Ri Je-gang, Ri Myong-su and Ri Yong-chol are power brokers in the Hermit Kingdom, said Chang Jin-sung, a North Korean defector and poet, who is currently visiting Tokyo. Other major political figures include O Kuk-Ryol, Kang Kwan-ju, Chang Sung-taek, the brother-in-law of Kim, and the nation's No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, said Chang Jin-sung, who said he had met Kim Jong-il twice before he left North Korea for China in 2004.

Jong-Il’s eldest son Kim Jong-nam, 37, is likely to be an eventual heir, as China backs him and he is relatively stronger than the younger brothers, the poet said. “Kim Jong-il had a bad liver due to excessive drinking.”

Kosuke Takahashi, a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun, is a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at letters@kosuke.net.