After Kim Jong-il funeral: collapse or continuity for North Korea?
As North Korea mourns during Kim Jong-il's funeral, South Koreans are reminded of the dangers of their unstable and poor sibling nation.
Seoul, South Korea
About 200,000 North Koreans bade a tearful farewell today to “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il in a three-hour funeral procession in Pyongyang that made one point clear: North Korean strategists want the world to know that third son Kim Jong-un is their new leader.Skip to next paragraph
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While crowds wept and wailed to the stentorian sounds of funeral music, Kim Jong-un, wearing a long black coat, trudged in snow under gray skies on the right side of the hearse bearing the flag-draped coffin of his father on the roof.
That image provides compelling visual evidence of the rapid ascent of Kim Jong-un, still in his late 20s, to the top of the North Korean hierarchy. Regardless of how much power he really wields among the other top leaders – also walking beside the hearse – he will hold the country’s highest military and party titles.
Now the question is whether he can endure the advice of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, right behind him in the funeral cortege. The corollary question is whether North Korea will collapse under the weight of the hunger, poverty, and disease afflicting the vast majority of citizens outside the ruling elite and military establishment of some 1.1 million troops, believed to be the world’s fourth or fifth largest.
As far as people here are concerned, stability would be the best outcome for North Korea – though few might be able to predict the long-range future of a country that’s increasingly dependent on China, its Korean War ally, for fuel, food, military support and much else needed to survive.
“Most people support the theory that Kim Jong-un will settle down successfully,” says Kim Tae-woo, president of the Korea Institute of National Unification. “He is of royal pedigree” – an allusion to his inheritance of the dynasty founded by his long-ruling grandfather, Kim Il-sung – “and therefore he has a kind of legitimacy.”
That view of continuity and stability in North Korea is common among analysts even as Kim Jong-un has to learn to lead North Korea’s 24 million people.
That task assumes urgency while North Korean planners try to realize Kim Jong-il’s dream of “a strong and prosperous country” by next year.
Worst case scenario?
Most ordinary South Koreans express the idea that it's in their country's interest to keep North Korea stable. Only as a worst-case scenario does the prospect of a “collapse” of a system that’s endured countless forecasts of failure come up in serious discussion.
“Collapse can be a disaster,” says Kim Tae-woo, who’s followed North Korea closely as a military analyst, but he believes “China’s unconditional support” is “one reason why North Korea in its present form will prevail.”