Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Death of Kim Jong Il: Will this mark the End of the Dynasty?

According to North Korea's state media, Kim Jong Il has died of a heart attack. News sources initially stated that he died of fatigue. Although we know little about North Korea, reports have speculated for years that Kim Jong Il struggled with health problems. In fact, intelligence analysts had argued that as early as 2009, Kim Jong Il was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and a year earlier, in 2008, he reportedly suffered a stroke.

He is succeeded by Kim Jong Un, his third son, who is in his 20s and first appeared on the scene in October 2010. Having no experience at all in managing the country, Kim Jong Un will face so many challenges ahead that we could be witnessing the end of Kim Dynasty.

North Korea is living under borrowed time. Kim Jong Il had squandered so much international goodwill due to his intransigence in both the nuclear disputes and border crises, that Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo have practically given up on negotiations and instead waited for regime change. Even Beijing was reportedly losing patience with the hermit kingdom.

At the same time, however, it will be difficult to get rid of the nuclear program. Similar to Iran, the program is both the crown jewel of the hard-liner faction (the military) and tool to deter an American invasion.

It did seem that there was a growing chasm within North Korea's political elite, most evidently seen in the currency chaos back in early 2010, which cost the life of the chief of its planning and finance department. Facing impending economic collapse, the elite split between those who supported some sort of reform and those who completely opposed it . The execution of the scapegoat of the entire mess signaled Kim Jong Il's agreement for more economic openness -- at least it would stave off collapse.

Kim Jong Il could pull this off because he had the control over the North Korean political and military elites. Can the young and inexperienced Kim Jong Un, who lacks as much political capital as his father, pull off the same feat?

Moreover, unlike the succession process from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il, which culminated in 1994 and was started as early as the 1970s, the succession process this time was haphazard -- due to the supposedly reckless and odd behavior of Kim Jong Il's sons. Kim Jong Nam, the first son and originally the most likely successor, lost his father's favor after he was arrested in Japan with a fake passport, wishing to visit Tokyo Disneyland with his family.

His second son was not a good option either. Kim Jong Il thought Jong-chul was "too feminine and unfit for leadership." He also wrote a poem that would make John Lennon blush:
 "My Ideal World." It begins: "If I had my ideal world I would not allow weapons and atom bombs anymore. I would destroy all terrorists with the Hollywood star Jean-Claude Van Damme. I would make people stop taking drugs…" He wrote a somewhat chilling short story called "My Father Was a Ghost," in which his father haunts him by pretending to be a spirit.
By a process of elimination, we're left with Kim Jong Un. He is very inexperienced and will possibly be influenced by Kim Kyong Hui, his aunt, and her husband Jang Song Thaek, or General O Kuk-ryol, his father's old friend who would mostly represent the military's interests. A wild card here is General Kim Kyok-Sik, whose command of troops might be pivotal should clashes finally erupt between the political and the military sides.

His inexperience will probably hurt him when it matters most: during the power struggle that will occur soon. Whatever he decides, will be seen by one faction as detrimental, and that will not do no good in maintaining the Kim Dynasty. That said, probably few will shed any tear should the dynasty finally collapse.

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