Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Dear Leader Assumes Room Temperature

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il is dead. According to both Reuters and the Associated Press, state media in the DPRK announced Kim's demise earlier today:

Kim Jong Il, North Korea's mercurial and enigmatic longtime leader, has died of heart failure. He was 69.

In a "special broadcast" Monday from the North Korean capital, state media said Kim died of a heart ailment on a train due to a "great mental and physical strain" on Dec. 17 during a "high intensity field inspection." It said an autopsy was done on Dec. 18 and "fully confirmed" the diagnosis.

Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008, but he had appeared relatively vigorous in photos and video from recent trips to China and Russia and in numerous trips around the country carefully documented by state media. The communist country's "Dear Leader" - reputed to have had a taste for cigars, cognac and gourmet cuisine - was believed to have had diabetes and heart disease.

Initial broadcasts from North Korean TV referred to the dead ruler in the hagiographical terms normally reserved for the younger Kim and his father, Kim il-Sung, founder of the DPRK. Kim Jong-il took power in Pyongyang 16 years ago, following the death of his father.

"It is the biggest loss for the party ... and it is our people and nation's biggest sadness," an anchorwoman clad in black Korean traditional dress said in a voice choked with tears. She said the nation must "change our sadness to strength and overcome our difficulties."

While Kim Jong-il's demise was not totally unexpected, it did come as something of a surprise. He recovered sufficiently from his 2008 stroke to retain the reigns of power and lay the groundwork for another hereditary succession, to his third son, Kim Jong-am. Believed to be in his later 20s, Kim Jong-am is two decades younger than his father when he succeeded Kim Il-Sung, and desperately lacking in leadership experience. Since anointing him as North Korea's next leader in 2010, Kim Jong-il quickly raised his son's profile and administrative portfolio. But with the sudden death of Kim Jong-il, there are legitimate questions about the new leader's ability to retain power through the upcoming transition process.

However, it might be a mistake to bet against Kim Jong-am. Similar questions were raised about Kim Jong-il but he managed to consolidate power by winning the support of his most important constituency, the DPRK military. In the years leading up to his death, Kim Jong-il elevated a number of younger officers who are considered more "accepting" of his son as the next leader; they will form the bedrock of support on which Kim Jong-am will build his regime.

Suffice it to say, the next North Korean leader faces grave challenges. The nation' economy is in the toilet, with no prospects for recovery. Pyongyang's most viable exports are ballistic missiles and WMD technology, along with illegal drugs and counterfeit currency. Millions of North Korean peasants face starvation, due to years of agricultural failures. It's a situation similar to the mid-1990s, when Kim Jong-il allowed at least one million peasants to perish, so scarce food supplies could be directed to the military and political elites. Given the same scenario, Kim Jong-am will likely follow his father's example.

But there's no assurance the populace will tolerate those tactics again. In recent years, there have been faint signs of political opposition and discontent within the DPRK. And, with more North Koreans gaining glimpses of the outside world, tolerance for the gulag state may continue to erode. If Kimg Jong-am can't consolidate power quickly--with the support of the military--North Korea's death spiral may accelerate, increasing the odds of a military and humanitarian crisis on the Korean peninsula.

That's one reason South Korea's military went on heightened alert when news of Kim's passing was announced. Seoul realizes that North Korea has adopted a much more provocative foreign policy in recent years, as evidenced by Pyongyang's first nuclear test in 2006, and more recently, the sinking of a ROK destroyer and the shelling of a South Korean island (along the maritime DMZ) in 2010. It is believed that Kim Jong-am played a role in both of those latter decisions and he would use similar tactics to gain attention (and aid) from his adversaries.

The passing of Kim Jong-il does not mean a corresponding increase in the prospects for war. If anything, the new leader will need time to secure his grip on power before embarking on specific foreign policy objectives. But having learned from the master of brinksmanship, there is no sign that Pyongyang's new leader will abandon that strategy, particularly since it has proven so effective in the past.

As for the U.S. reaction, look for Foggy Bottom to release some sort of bland statement suggesting an opportunity for improved relations with North Korea, somewhere down the road. The Obama Administration has largely ignored DPRK provocations in recent years, hoping that Pyongyang would eventually come around on the nuclear problem and other contentious issues. Don't look for that to change, either. In the mean time, the Korean Peninsula will become a much more dangerous place.

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