international intrigue

How Is North Korea Reacting to the Death of Kim Jong-Il?

Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-un. Photo: Pool/Getty Images, Vincent Yu/AP

Footage from North Korean state television following the death of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il shows rows of men and women bowing before flags and statutes of the deceased, crying out, and banging the pavement in apparent agony. The military’s moves in the immediate aftermath were less emotional: On Monday, North Korea test-fired a short-range missile from the east coast of the country toward South Korea. “This is something that the military has continued to follow, and we believe it is not related to the death of Chairman Kim Jong-il,” said a South Korean government official. With its secretive dictator dead at the age of 69, North Korea now faces a strange plan for succession and diplomatic uncertainty around the world.

The ruling Workers’ Party named Kim’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, “the great successor to the revolution” and “the eminent leader of the military and the people” in a statement after the announcement of its leader’s death. Last fall, Kim Jong-un was celebrated by his father publicly as a future leader after being hidden nearly his whole life, and was instantly named a four-star general and vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party. “Under the leadership of our comrade Kim Jong-un, we have to turn sadness into strength and courage, and overcome today’s difficulties,” said the Workers’ Party on Monday.

But as a successor, analysts doubt Kim Jong-un’s preparedness — he’s thought to be in his late twenties — and therefore the military’s support for him. The Times reports that these perceived weaknesses “could make him vulnerable to power struggles.” Max Fisher at Atlantic tallies up a few recent examples of possible undermining tactics:

Some analysts suspected that the out-of-nowhere shelling of a South Korean town in November 2010 was meant to consolidate power in the military, away from Kim Jong-Il’s inexperienced son. Last December, a freight train carrying “birthday gifts” for Kim Jong-Un was derailed in a suspected attack; it’s hard to imagine anyone outside of the military pulling something of that scale off. In February, North Korean state media published a photo of the young heir looking through a pair of binoculars he was holding upside down, which some Pyongyang-watchers suspected might have been a deliberate swipe at Kim Jong-Un.

The United States and China will doubtlessly be watching the hand-off of power closely. “We’re entering a period that is especially dangerous,” explained one expert at M.I.T.“Here is a young leader who may be distrusted by the military, and he has to prove himself,” he said. “And that can lead to miscalculation and inadvertent war.” Another expert, a former American military commander in South Korea, says the plans for succession will not be so easy as simply hoisting up Kim Jong-un. “Anyone who tells you they understand what is going to happen is either lying or deceiving himself,” he said.

A scholar from the Korean Policy Institute is more optimistic: “[W]e can probably anticipate a smooth transition in terms of the political leadership,” she told Al Jazeera, and that might include the forging of relations with the United States. She pointed to recent “steps towards de-nuclearisation and engagement,” including a deal announced just before Kim Jong-Il’s death that would send American aid in exchange for North Korea halting its uranium enrichment program. “They have set a three day period of mourning which is very dissimilar to the three-year-long mourning period for Kim Il-sung when he passed away,” said the policy expert. “So I know they are very eager to move forward with dealing with the food crisis and making sure that the economic reforms that they set for 2012 be put into place.”

North Korea is believed to have the capabilities to make at least eight nuclear weapons. A statement from the White House following the announcement said plainly, in part, “The President has been notified, and we are in close touch with our allies in South Korea and Japan.” But as serious as the situation is, never underestimate the Internet’s ability to focus on the jokes.

North Korea Reacts to Kim Jong-Il’s Death