Recent footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has raised new questions about his long-term health, and potential succession scenarios in Pyongyang.
The 67-year-old dictator appeared much thinner and grayer during an appearance before North Korea's parliament on Thursday, showing the lingering effects of a stroke he reportedly suffered last year.
Kim limped slightly as he arrived at the Supreme People's Assembly, to the predictable applause and a standing ovation. The rubber-stamp parliament reappointed Kim as head of the nation's National Defense Commission, the most powerful position in the DPRK.
Ironically, the appearance at the assembly--and recently-broadcast footage on state television--was supposed to show the North Korean populace (and the world) that Kim remains firmly in charge. While many analysts agree with that assessment, they are less certain about Kim Jong-il's ability to rule into his 70s like his father, Kim Il-Sung.
That's one reason to watch a pair of "promotions" recently announced by Pyongyang. According to Fox News and the Associated Press, Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, has been named to the defense commission, enhancing his power among North Korea's ruling elite. Some reports suggest that Jang led the government last year, while Kim Jong-il was incapacitated.
Jang also has close ties to Jong Un, Kim's youngest son who has been mentioned as potential successor to his father. But Jong is only 26, and widely viewed as unprepared the lead the country. By elevating Jang to the defense commission, Kim Jong-il may be trying to find someone who can run the country until Jong Un is ready.
Conventional wisdom holds that the DPRK will be finished before Kim's son reaches middle age, and acquires enough stature to replace his father. After all, the country is bankrupt, with no viable exports aside from missiles and nuclear technology. At least a million North Koreans have starved to death over the past decade, and millions more remain at risk.
But it is also a mistake to underestimate North Korea, and the staying power of the Kim's regime. Predictions of Pyongyang's demise have been circulating in the intelligence community for more than 20 years. After all, it doesn't take an expert to understand that the North Korean model is unsustainable. Yet, the DPRK has somehow managed to muddle through, using the tools of a police state to crush any hint of domestic dissent, and a combination of threats and empty promises to milk aid from the west.
And, prospects for Pyongyang's survival have actually risen a bit in recent months. Despite the provocation of last weekend's long-range missile test, the U.S. seems willing to forgive and forget, pushing for another round of meaningless sanctions from the United Nations--and a resumption of the Six Party nuclear talks.
If history is any indicator, Kim Jong-il will eventually return to the bargaining table, after winning more concessions from the U.S. and its partners. That will give North Korea enough food and fuel to meet its military needs, sustaining Kim's most important domestic constituency. Meanwhile, Pyongyang's nuclear scientists and rocket engineers will keep working on their products for paying customers in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Judging by his physical appearance, Kim Jong-il may not be around in 10 years. A lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking will do that to you. But the Stalinist state may survive, given North Korea's long history of defying the odds--and the west's willingness to prop up his regime, through direct aid and our unwillingness to pressure Kim's friends in Beijing