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.

By , Correspondent

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    In this image made from KRT video, a huge portrait of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is carried during his funeral procession in snowy Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday.
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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.

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.

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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.”

That’s the conventional view among analysts as China steadily increases its influence over the North. Reports here are that China is assiduously spreading propaganda, claiming among other things, that the Korean national dish, kimchi, a spicy confection of pickled cabbage and other vegetables, actually came from China.

“The Chinese strategy, no matter what, is to occupy North Korea,” says Chang Han-jin, a salesman. “China will send troops or aid to North Korea if necessary to make sure of their power there.”

Shim Jae-hoon, a long-time political consultant here, agrees. “China is interested in propping up the regime whatever comes,” he says. “I don’t see any sign of North Korea cracking up. The more North Korea is dependent on China, the better it is for them.”

Strongman or friend? 

Still, speculation here tends to focus on a question other than collapse – whether Kim Jong-un will assert himself as a strongman or adopt a conciliatory policy toward his people as well as South Korea and the US.

“There’s no other option for him but to be more cooperative with the outside world,” says Paik Hak-soon, senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a think tank here. In the quest for food aid from South Korea and the US, both of which stopped shipments of food in 2008, Mr. Paik predicts that Kim will be open to negotiations on suspending the nuclear weapons program that was probably his father’s most obvious legacy.

Paik acknowledges, though, North Korea does not want to “to appear weak and bow to pressure,” particularly in view of the power of the generals with whom Kim Jong-un might eventually come into conflict.

Kim Jong-un, like his father before him, is now “supreme commander” of the armed forces, but some observers believe he may find the military holds the final power.

“If he goes the wrong way, they’ll push him back,” says Tim Peters, a missionary with long experience here dealing with refugees from the North. “Word is he was more harsh than his father when he was taking over security services” – and ordered the executions of defectors who had fled to China and then sent back by Chinese authorities, says Mr. Peters.

People here are aware of the existence of vast prison camps in North Korea and the depths to which North Korea has fallen economically, but hardly want to consider the implications of the downfall of the regime.

“I don’t want to think about it,” says Moon Su-jin, working in a travel agency here. “It’s too scary.”

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