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.

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy

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  • Diogenes of NJ

    Kim Jong Un – the most well fed North Korean I’ve ever seen.

    Auntie Em would just love to pinch those chubby cheeks. He’d probably have her shot if she did.

    – Kyon

  • LoFlyer

    It will be interesting to watch the fallout from Kim’s death. South Korea noted the huge cost to West Germany when they absorbed East Germany, and has zero interest in taking on the cost of modernaization of North Korea. China isn’t all that interested either, but have expended so much resources on North Korea that they cannot allow them to fail.
    My best guess on the issue. North Korean leaders love to live an opulant lifestyle unavailable to their camrades working in the rice paddies. The North Korean leaders will elect for “China style” reform to maintain their excessive lifestyles and leadership of the reclusive and belligerant nation.
    This issue might end with a satisfactory conclusion, China could demand that North Korean leaders divest its nuclear program in return for aid and support in the reforming of North Korea.
    It could also go badly wrong with the worse scenario of N. Korea lobbing a nuke into Seoul and invading S. Korea. No one doubts that from past N. Korean beligerence that the leadership is out of touch with reality.
    What is really scary is that President Obama is totally unprepared, mentally to deal with issue. His handling of the mid-east “Arab spring” is only a sympton of his incompetance.
    I am not a big believer in disobeying orders, even if unlawful. If it comes down to a war there will be parylsis in the executive office for at least 24 hours, possibly more. USN and Army command will be on the spot and forced to make some difficult decisions.
    I pray that they will follow their instincts and make the difficult decisions required to ensure the safety of South Korean civilians.
    Best of luck, mates!

  • Matt Yankee

    KenC, one other possiblility is that the North sells a weapon directly to an enemy and which is used in a terror attack. The Syrian nuke facility bombed by Israel in 2007 was designed with the help of the North to eventually produce a weapon. Giving them a fuctioning bomb (once they figure out how to make one function) is not a far step from what they have already done. We apparently have decided to wait for the attack instead of acting. Maybe that’s just the way it has to be but it’s going to be a very different world after. And then there is also Pakistan…hope for the best plan for the worst.

  • LoFlyer

    Matt Yankee, good point, I read today that that the Fins intercepted a shipment of 69 “Patriot” missiles bound for China. link is:
    Anything is possible in the international arms market. The problem with NK is that they are so unpredictable, irresponsible and crazy aggressive.
    One idea that I have is that we buy the NK nuclear weapons and material at market value and throw in the carrot of humanitarian aid for NK to shut down their nuclear program. China would be the middle-man and the US supply the cash. For a billion dollars it would be a bargain and Asia would be advised to think about it and come up with the cash themselves. In all fairness Russia and China should pay for it all as they are the ones that created this problem but that is wishful thinking. Communists are really great at screwing things up and declaring they had nothing to do with the issue.
    The big problem with this idea is that NK has proven itself unreliable in these matters. How can we verify they have actually sold us all their weapons and halted their nuclear program?
    One thing we do know is that the NK military has less capability than 20 years ago, except for the nukes.
    When NK shelled the SK island last year the entire NK military went on alert and lost three A/C due to collision and crashes. That doesn’t mean all of the NK military is incompetent but it is a clear sign that they are fracked up over-all.
    If NK does elect for “China-style” reform the danger of civilian unrest is high. Internet communication and a look at Googlearth will convince the NK civilian population of how badly they have been screwed by their political leadership for half a century.
    China is facing more unrest by its citizens over local corruption of communist officials. All due to better communication and the Internet.
    We live in interesting times. I have tremendous respect for all military personnel that deals with this crap every day. We are proud of you!

  • Diogenes of NJ

    Check the link:

    This makes the 1936 Nuremberg Rally look like a Boy Scout jamboree; still, the SS were snappier dressers.

    – Kyon