Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Northern and Western Asia

Kim Jong-Il's Death: Implications for North Korea's Stability and U.S. Policy *

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Northern and Western Asia

Kim Jong-Il's Death: Implications for North Korea's Stability and U.S. Policy *

Article excerpt


One notable feature of official U.S. and South Korean reactions to Kim Jong-il's death is the extent to which both governments have publicly stated their desire for North Korea to remain stable.3 Instability in North Korea would pose a number of challenges and possibly threats to the United States, South Korea, and the region. Perhaps the most worrisome are the possibilities that controls over North Korea's nuclear materials might loosen, that a weak leadership in Pyongyang could lash out militarily, and that a power vacuum could suck U.S., South Korean, and Chinese military forces into North Korea.

In the coming months, both stabilizing and destabilizing dynamics will be operating simultaneously inside North Korea. It is likely that cohesive tendencies will predominate in the short run, as members of the ruling elite rally around Kim Jong-un, as has been seen by members of the ruling elite paying their respects to the new ruler in the days since his father's death. In particular, most analysts expect that the regime collective will strive to maintain unity at least until April 2012, when the country is planning to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il-Sung. However, over time, few would be surprised if tensions were to mount among the power centers of the North Korean system.

Divisive Forces

Kim Jong-il's death, which officially occurred on December 17, has long been high on most North Korea-watchers' lists of events that could trigger the collapse of the North Korean regime.4 The untested Kim Jong-un, who is thought to be in his late 20s, has had less than two years to consolidate his power base, in contrast to the more than two decades of on-the-job training his father enjoyed before he became the country's supreme leader in 1994. Perhaps most importantly, while almost nothing is known about the younger Kim, it is believed that he has only weak ties to and authority over the Korean People's Army (KPA, as the North Korean military is known), arguably the country's most important center of power. Indeed, some speculate that Kim's presumed domestic weakness could lead North Korea to launch a small-scale military provocation, such as a third nuclear test, in 2012 as a way to bolster his leadership.

Moreover, ruling North Korea today is far more complex than is was during the country's last leadership transition in 1994, upon the death of Kim Jong-il's father, the country's founder and -Great Leader" Kim il-Sung. Two decades of chronic food shortages-which peaked in the famine of the late 1990s that killed between 5%-10% of the country's approximately 22 million people-have caused the breakdown of the state-run distribution system and the emergence of official and clandestine markets, as ordinary North Koreans have had to fend for themselves to feed their families. More North Koreans are exposed to the outside world than ever before. Some venture back and forth into China, own cell phones, have access to foreign radio and television broadcasts, and are able to purchase foreign products. The police state has become highly corruptible, and access to foreign exchange has become a new path to power and protection. The -Great Successor," as Kim Jong-un has been dubbed by the official North Korean media, has had little time to gain experience managing various personal and group interests that have proliferated among the North Korean elite. Many North Korea experts will be watching for signs that these groups and individuals-including one or both of Kim Jong-un's older brothers-are maneuvering to assert themselves and their interests.

Unifying Forces

Despite the array of challenges, there are several forces that are likely to hold the regime together, particularly in the short run. While Kim Jong-un is untested, his chances of remaining in power and consolidating his base are far greater today than they were in 2008, when his father is believed to have suffered from a serious stroke that may have incapacitated him for a time. …

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