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Kim Jong-il's death: Don't look for swift change in North Korea

The death of 'dear leader' Kim Jong-il is unlikely to produce great change in North Korea in the short term, and successor Kim Jong-un may find it difficult to consolidate power. In the long term, the Kim monarchy will collapse and the Korean peninsula will be reunited.

By Joseph S. Nye / December 19, 2011

In this Oct. 10, 2010 file photo Kim Jong-un, right, along with his father and North Korea leader Kim Jong-il, left, attend a massive military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim Jong-un has been named the successor to his father, who has died.

AP Photo/Kyodo News, File

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Cambridge, Mass.

The death of Kim Jong -il may gradually unlock change in North Korea, but the process is unlikely to be smooth or quick.

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In 2010, Mr. Kim promoted his 20-something son Kim Jong-un to be a four-star general and spent the last year trying to bolster his standing among top party and military leaders. Whether Kim Jong-il will posthumously succeed in consolidating an oxymoronic communist monarchy is unlikely, but the succession politics of the last year were marked by two dangerous bellicose events – the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and the shelling of a South Korean island.

In the short term of months, I do not expect great change in Pyongyang. But over the next year or so, Kim Jong-un may find it difficult to consolidate his power with the old guard, particularly in the Army. That would suggest a period of uncertainty and instability.

In the long term, I believe that the Kim monarchy will collapse and the Korean peninsula will be reunited, but these expectations have taken much longer to fulfill than anyone expected a decade ago. When I chaired the National Intelligence Council a decade and a half ago, I was struck by how opaque the North Korean regime was to outside intelligence.

Other regional players such as Japan and South Korea will be nervous, but maintain their close alliance with the United States. China has more of a problem. It wants North Korea to change, to give up its nuclear weapons, and to stop creating crises (like the two last year) that endanger Chinese security. But China is also afraid that a collapse of the North Korean government might create chaos on its borders. Ironically, while China provides the economic and food assistance that North Korea desperately needs, China has limited leverage over the “hermit kingdom.”

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