South Korea put its troops on alert and Asian stock markets fell on Monday in signs of concern that the sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il could spark instability in his secretive, nuclear-armed nation and beyond.
Most North Korea-watchers, though, predicted that a dynastic handover of power to Mr. Kim’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, would lead to few surprises. The younger Kim was quickly named the “Great Successor” to his father, the “Dear Leader,” by Pyongyang’s official news agency, keeping power in Kim family hands for a third generation.
Though Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, is thought to have been educated in Switzerland, which might have given him a broader perspective than his father or grandfather enjoyed, “in the immediate future there will probably be no change,” says David Kang, head of Korean Studies at the University of Southern California.
The new leader “will keep his head down for the next couple of years and the government will still be run by elder statesmen,” Professor Kang says.
Well-placed Chinese observers agree. “I do not see a big impact on regional security because the personnel situation is under control” since Kim Jong-il announced last year that his son would succeed him, argues Liu Xuecheng, a Korea expert at the China Institute for International Studies, a think tank in Beijing linked to the Foreign Ministry.
China wants stability
At the same time, Professor Liu points out, “power is still concentrated in the military,” which will continue to exert significant influence over North Korean policy, while Pyongyang’s key neighbors – China and Russia – have both indicated their support for the young Kim.
China is especially concerned that its maverick protégé does not get out of hand. “Collapse and chaos would be a worst-case scenario” for Beijing, whose “basic policy is to secure the Korean peninsula’s security and political stability,” says Cai Jian, a North Korea expert at Fudan University in Shanghai.
The prickly North Korean government has long sought to keep Beijing at arm’s length, but in its current dire economic straits, “they will need China more than ever” to see them through the power transition, suggests Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
That aid will certainly be forthcoming, adds John Delury, a professor of politics at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Chinese diplomats will be in hyper-stability mode to soften out any bumps that they can.”
US food aid in question
The United States, too, is currently considering resuming food aid to Pyongyang. Though the status of that deal is now in doubt, recent talks between US and North Korean officials mean that “channels of communication were opening, and at this stage that is important,” says Professor Delury.
There seems little prospect, though, that international negotiations aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and welcoming the country back into the community of nations in return, will resume any time soon. The Chinese-sponsored “six-party talks” have been suspended for the past three years, and have achieved little since they began in 2003.
Dramatic steps on nuclear program unlikely
“North Korea will be very inward looking for months, or even years,” says Peter Beck, a research fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations in Washington. “The regime will be stable but it will be hunkering down” as Kim Jong-un establishes his authority and shows filial piety by staying out of the limelight.
His father waited three years before formally taking power, following the 1994 death of his own father, the man who founded the North Korean state, Kim Il-sung.
“North Korea will not be adopting any new policies during a long mourning period,” says Professor Liu. “Kim Jong-un will need this time to consolidate his rule and to prepare any policy adjustments.”
While that probably means that Pyongyang will not take any dramatic steps soon to close its uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons programs, as Washington demands, it also makes it less likely that the government will lash out with unpredictable military attacks, such as its artillery assault on a South Korean island last year.
The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that the North conducted a short-range missile test on Monday, shortly after Kim Jong-il's death became public, according to the Associated Press. The report included the assessment of two South Korean military officials who did not confirm the test but said that it was likely part of a routine drill.
North Korea has carried out two underground nuclear weapons tests, but “its capability is rudimentary at the moment,” says Greg Moore, author of a soon-to-be-published book on North Korea’s nuclear program.
“They don’t have anything they can drop from a plane or put on a missile,” Professor Moore adds. “At least we don’t have to worry about whose finger is on the button,” in the wake of Kim Jong-il’s death, “because there is no button yet.”