After — notably — successfully being kept secret for some 48 hours, North Korea announced the death of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, the country’s ruler for nearly two decades.
Kim’s death comes as North Korea was preparing for a live leadership transition in 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim’s father and North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung, a transition that had been intended to avoid the three years of internal chaos the younger Kim faced after his father’s death in 1994. Kim Jong Il had delayed choosing a successor from among his sons to avoid allowing any one to build up their own support base independent of their father. His expected successor, son Kim Jong Un, was only designated as the heir apparent in 2010 after widespread rumors in 2009 and thus has had little experience and training to run North Korea and little time to solidify his own support base within the various North Korean leadership elements. Now, it is likely that Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, will rule behind the scenes as Kim Jong Un trains on the job. Like the transition from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il, it is likely that North Korea will focus internally over the next few years as the country’s elite adjust to a new balance of power. In any transition, there are those who will gain and those who are likely to be disenfranchised, and this competition can lead to internal conflicts.
In the course of his nearly two decades of role, Kim Jong Il made it easy for the world to perceive him as unpredictable and crazy — irrational even. But entertaining idiosyncrasies and (not unjustified) accusations of starving and impoverishing his people can conceal a remarkable consistent foreign policy and deterrence strategy in which a poor, isolated country kept itself at the center of the international system with five of the world’s most powerful countries — the U.S., China, South Korea, Russia and Japan not only keeping North Korea high on their agenda, but repeatedly granting the regime concessions in exchange for ‘progress’ in negotiations that Pyongyang played like a fiddle.
Repeatedly we’ve seen the North attack the South with impunity. Even the shelling of Yeonpyeongdo island in 2010, where the South returned fire (though on pre-registered targets, not at the mobile batteries the counterbattery radar should have indicated), the military response was quickly followed by attempts by both Seoul and the international community to calm the situation. Those attempts to placate North Korea are only likely to continue for fear of exacerbating internal stability.
The immediate question is the status of the North Korean military. Kim Jong Un is officially the Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers Party of Korea and was recently made a four-star general, but he has no military experience. If the military remains committed to keeping the Kim family at the pinnacle of leadership, then things will likely hold, at least in the near term. There were no reports from South Korea that North Korea’s military had entered a state of heightened alert following Kim Jong Il’s death, suggesting that the military is on board with the transition for now. If that holds, the country likely will remain stable, if internally tense.
This more-rapid-than-intented but nevertheless prepared-for transition of power to a designated successor within the existing regime structure is not guaranteed to succeed but it has a reasonable chance of success. And the international community is likely to give the North a wide berth in the meantime for fear of exacerbating matters.