What's Next After the Dear Leader's Gone?

The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il last Saturday has left the world’s analysts scrambling for answers about what comes next in the reclusive, nuclear-armed country. There are few available, but there are wide ranges of possibilities.

Kim had been ill since suffering a stroke in 2008 and despite periodic appearances in public to demonstrate his stamina, there has been speculation about his health ever since.

Kim himself announced that his son, Kim Jong Un, would take over as supreme leader of the nation of 24 million half-starved people in 2012, naming him as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party. However, Jong Un, who is in his 20s, is probably too young and inexperienced to take over immediately.

Despite the impression that Kim Jong-Il was irrational, in fact he was enormously skilled at playing off the great powers against each other and keeping North Asia in a state of constant turmoil. Jong Un has had little experience and training despite his own periodic appearances in North Korea’s controlled press.

“North Korea seems to be in control and stable,” said a source in the US intelligence community who preferred not to be named. “Kim’s death was announced only after an autopsy, a national funeral has been announced for Dec. 28, which his successor/son is set to chair, and a period of national mourning is set through 29 December. This to me suggests control and stability, at least in the short term. It'll be interesting to see if the White House sees this as a diplomatic opportunity or not. We'll see.”

Obviously China’s goal is to ensure that North Korea doesn’t collapse. It doesn’t want to see a massive influx of starving North Koreans coming over its borders, nor does it want to see an unfriendly regime in Pyongyang. For the US and China, the status quo ante – and an end to the rocket-rattling – would probably be a relief. China has shown signs of getting tired of the north’s belligerency.

It is uncertain how much of his father’s support base Jong-Un will inherit, or whether his brothers will go along with the succession. Some analysts suggest that Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, will rule as regent while Jong Un gains experience. It is unlikely that the system will break down as the leadership would see few advantages in abandoning their status and privileges for the uncertainties of more open governance. There is unlikely to be a Korean Spring in which the starved and brutalized masses rise up in Pyongyang and take the leadership apart.

In Seoul, only a few kilometers from the Demilitarized Zone, the most heavily fortified dividing line between two countries in the world, the mood appears to be business as usual, “phlegmatic as it always is during crises,” said Steven Borowiec, a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel. “Kim Jong-Il died two days before the announcement so it seems they have some kind of plan in place. No one I spoke to expects anything dramatic to happen -- Seoul is a place of rarely interrupted productivity.”

The South Korean military leadership clearly thinks there may be more going on than is apparent on the ground in the north. The Joint Chiefs of Staff Monday placed all units on emergency alert, although raising the “defcon,” the five-stage combat alert level – now at level three – would be a natural response to any uncertainty across the DMZ. The Joint Chiefs said they would increase their monitoring activities along the border.

It is also in everybody’s interest to keep the extreme conservatives in Seoul from advocating unnecessary adventurism. They have been pushing the Lee Myung-bak regime to set up South Korea’s own nuclear capability to counter the north. Presumably, with Kim now dead and a period of uncertainty settling in, there is bound to be some agitation for attempting to destabilize the north.

North Korean state media announced that Kim had died of a massive heart attack while traveling on a train from inspecting various development projects. Assuming that is true and given his ill health for the past several years, his demise would have been anticipated by the North’s military leadership and his court, dispositions and contingencies have been prepared. The two-day delay in announcing the death would appear to support that. The ruling elite probably has been prudent to assess and probably test key individuals in the chain of command as to their loyalty to the designated successor, again assuming this had been settled before Kim’s death.

North Korea itself is probably now in a state of national lockdown as the entire population awaits the word on whom they have to idolize next. This will then be followed by a period of public grief and theatrical displays of hysteria when the new (Young?) Leader is named.

After that it is reasonable to expect to see more of the same, though the possibility of some early stamping and noise to signal that the country has a new leader is also likely to demonstrate continuity and resolve. When the young Kim Jong-Il was earning his credibility in the 1980s to take over from Kim Il-Sung – the Great Leader and founder of the country – who ultimately died in 1994, a period of serious strains followed.

In 1983, for instance, Kim Jong-Il supposedly personally participated in planning the bombing of the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Rangoon in an attempt to kill then-South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan. As some of the president's staff began assembling at the mausoleum to lay a wreath, a bomb exploded in the ceiling, killing 21 and wounding 46. Three senior South Korean ministers were killed. Chun only escaped because his motorcade had been delayed by traffic

Then, in 1987, two North Korean agents placed a bomb that exploded aboard a Korean Air international passenger flight between Baghdad and Iraq, killing 104 passengers and 11 crew members. One of the two agents committed suicide, but the other, apprehended in Bahrain, wrote a book saying she had been personally briefed by Kim Jong-Il before carrying out the mission.

It obviously is too early to tell which way Kim Jong-Un, dubbed the Great Successor” by state media, will go. Beyond the fact that he was educated in Swiss schools, and that his father chose him over two other sons because he believed he had the necessary toughness that they lacked, little is known. Jong-Il reportedly spent the last year grooming him to take over, including taking him to China in an apparent attempt to win Beijing’s support for the succession. Some analysts believe the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island in November 2010, one of the most serious provocations between the two countries in recent years, was a designed to show the Young Leader’s military strength and resolve, along with the sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan, which was torpedoed by a North Korean submarine with the loss of 46 lives.

Certainly, Swiss education and a reported love for the National Basketball Association aside, it is probably unthinkable that Jong-Un will lighten up and turn the reclusive country towards more liberalization. The military is far too deep in every position to allow that to happen. Despite the fact that the youth was named a four-star general, he has no military experience and the idea that he will begin to boss around the general staff around is far-fetched at best.

The North's official Korean Central News Agency delivered a statement saying the country, people and military "must faithfully revere respectable comrade Kim Jong-un. At the leadership of comrade Kim Jong-un, we have to change sadness to strength and courage and overcome today's difficulties."

Probably the attention of the leadership will turn even more inward as the ruling elites work out their place in the new balance of power. There is always the possibility that one of Kim’s other two sons might find allies among those who gain status or lose it, with the result that internal conflicts could emerge. However, if the military overall sees its path to stability through the primacy of the Kim family, then stability it will be.

The immediate question for the great powers who view the North and South as their proxies – the United States and China – is whether anybody in the North wants to embark on the nuclear adventurism that kept the world on its toes for the past decade. The six-party talks between the US, China and the other powers over the north’s nuclear program remain up in the air.