The abrupt death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il threw the rest of Asia into deep anxiety on Monday and reverberated across the Pacific, as friends and enemies of the nuclear-armed country fretted over whether it was now facing an unpredictable power struggle — even as the official North Korean press proclaimed that Kim’s cherubic-faced youngest son was his successor.
The son, Kim Jong-un, is such an unknown that the world did not even know what he looked like until last year. Believed to be in his 20s, the son faces enormous uncertainty over his ability to retain power in one of the most opaque and repressive countries in the world — the last bastion of hard-line communism.
Even if he can, questions loom about his ability to manage North Korea’s ravaged economy, with its chronic shortages and deprivations, to avoid a complete collapse.
“Kim Jong-un’s first priority will be regime survival,” said Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.
The North Korean announcement that Kim Jong-il, 69, had died of a heart attack while on a train trip on Saturday — an unexplained 48-hour delay that only further unnerved North Korea’s neighbors — sent South Korea scrambling into a high state of military alert. South Korea’s stock market tumbled 3.4 percent.
The leaders of South Korea, Japan and the US all conferred urgently, reflecting both the surprise of Kim Jong-il’s death and the possibility of belligerent behavior from a paranoid Pyongyang government.
In Washington, the administration of US President Barack Obama, emphasizing the need for stability on the Korean Peninsula, delayed any decisions on the resumption of food aid or a new round of bilateral talks with the North Koreans.
Victoria Nuland, a US Department of State spokeswoman, told reporters: “We need to see where they are and where they go as they move through their transition period.”
Even China, North Korea’s most important ally and benefactor, appeared caught off guard by Kim Jong-il’s demise. Chinese leaders had been hoping that he would live at least a few more years to more solidly cement the succession of his son.
On Monday, China was moving quickly to deepen its influence over senior officials in North Korea and particularly with those in the military, according to Chinese and foreign former government officials and analysts.
For now, the reclusive leadership is acting true to form, offering few clues as to what, if any, changes the death of the dictator could bring. It does, however, appear to be offering the first glimmers of an answer to one question that has long dogged North Korea watchers — whether the powerful military and other parts of the nation’s small, privileged ruling elite would go along with the Kim family’s ambitions to extend its dynastic rule to a third generation.
Within hours of the announcement on Monday of his father’s death, North Korea’s ruling Workers Party released a statement calling on the nation to unite “under the leadership of our comrade Kim Jong-un.”
The younger Kim was also named head of the committee overseeing his father’s funeral, set for Wednesday next week — a move that some analysts interpreted as evidence that the transfer of power to the son was proceeding smoothly so far.
Analysts said they expected the funeral to be an elaborate public display, not only of reverence for the deceased leader, but also of national unity behind the new one.
“The first test of the new leadership will be its handling of the death itself,” said John Delury, a professor of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Some analysts said Kim Jong-il had used the three years after his stroke in 2008 to successfully build support for this untested son. They also said that members of North Korea’s ruling class might also recognize that, at least for now, they have no choice but to accept the succession — the elder Kim’s two older sons are seen as lazy playboys, while any move to reject the family could undermine the legitimacy of the entire leadership.
“Kim Jong-il used the years after his stroke to build a consensus among the elite that his son would be the face of North Korea after he was gone,” said Kim Yeon-su, a professor of North Korean studies at the National Defense University in Seoul.
He added that this was an easy face to sell — with plump cheeks, short-cropped hair and a hard gaze, Kim Jong-un looks strikingly similar to his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea, who is still revered as a god.
However, what happens after the funeral remains anyone’s guess.
The only precedent is the last transition in the current ruling dynasty, when Kim Jong-il took over after the 1994 death of his father and the uncertainty over his true authority lasted for years. In that case, the son observed a three-year period of traditional mourning, before formally taking over control of the nation, a move that reflects the government’s odd mixing of the trappings of ancient Confucian monarchy with a 20th-century Stalinist cult of personality.
With the death of Kim Jong-il, most analysts expect his anointed son to observe a similar period of mourning and to try to use it quickly to consolidate his power. While his father had more than a decade to build support between being named as heir and actually taking power, Kim Jong-un was publicly presented as a successor just last year.
Masao Okonogi, a specialist on North Korea at Keio University in Tokyo, said that during the new leader’s first few years, North Korea would most likely shy away from confrontation with the US and its allies, such as South Korea.
That was the route taken by Kim Jong-il after his father’s death, Okonogi said, and he seemed to hold out an olive branch by observing a 1994 deal negotiated by his father to freeze construction of two reactors suspected of being used in North Korea’s covert atomic weapons program. North Korea eventually suspended the deal in 2003, three years before testing its first nuclear weapon.
“Look for Kim Jong-un to make some offer, like to restart the six-party talks,” Okonogi said, referring to stalled multilateral negotiations on dismantling the North’s nuclear weapons. “He’ll need to reduce tensions with the United States in order to buy time.”
Some analysts said the new leader would probably use this time to try to fulfill his father’s widely heralded promise to turn North Korea into a “strong and prosperous” country by next year. To do that, he must revive a moribund economy that ranks near the bottom of the world in many measures, including per capita GDP of US$1,800 per year, versus US$30,000 in technologically advanced South Korea.
The North’s unwillingness to forsake the centrally planned economic system, its severe isolation, and its utter reliance on food and fuel handouts from China and international aid groups have perpetuated or deepened the crisis.
Even if the son managed to stabilize the economy and opened North Korea to the outside world, it would take tens of billions of dollars of new investment to raise the standard of living at a time when much of the rest of the world is in recession.
Given Kim Jong-un’s relatively weak domestic position, Okonogi and other analysts said some kind of group rule could emerge. Much speculation has centered on whether Kim Jong-il’s apparent second-in-command, his brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek, could emerge as a regent. However, analysts said there were no signs of that on Monday in the propaganda that followed Kim Jong-il’s death.
Beyond that, analysts said there are signs that Kim Jong-un has been following his father’s example by starting to build a power base in the military. Last year, the younger Kim was proclaimed a four-star general by his father, who also named him vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, the country’s most powerful body.
Kim Jong-un also appeared to burnish his credentials with the military by overseeing the artillery bombardment of a border island. He was also believed to have had a role in an attack last year on a South Korean warship — the South blamed the North for the sinking of the warship, but the North denied responsibility.
“This new generation will be beholden to Kim Jong-un for its power,” Chang said.
However, this could also leave Kim Jong-un beholden to the military, which may cast doubt on one of the biggest long-term questions about the new North Korean leadership — whether it will be able to bring some sort of change to the decrepit regime and its failing state-run economy.
Still, Chang and other analysts said a change of generation might bring a re-evaluation of the North’s isolation. They said they see hope in the fact that the new leader spent part of his childhood abroad, going to boarding school in Switzerland, and he is believed to speak English and German.
They say that growing numbers of North Korean officials are visiting neighboring China to see the success of its three-decade embrace of market economics under an authoritarian regime. Recent visitors to North Korea say there are already signs of a growing commercial links with China, including a new class of wealthy traders and an influx of Chinese-made consumer goods.
“The new leadership knows it will have to prove its mettle in the first few years,” said Delury, who visited Pyongyang in September. “Economic reform will be the single biggest challenge it faces.”
Lee Su-hyun contributed reporting from Seoul, Mark Lander from Washington and Edward Wong from Beijing.
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