Yesterday, at about 10 a.m. local, the South Korean national news agency for which I work got a heads-up that there would be an official announcement from North Korea at noon. To put that in perspective, last month the Norks were threatening to turn the South's presidential palace into a "deluge of fire" because of military exercises to mark the first anniversary of the North bombing a border island. For the past week or two, they have been alluding to the "consequences" of the South illuminating three huge Christmas Tree structures on their border. We expected something similar.
The lunch break in my office starts at noon but, not surprisingly, we stayed to hear what the Norks had to say. Then stayed to report that the Dear Leader was dead, and how that might affect many aspects of life here on the Korean Peninsula and further abroad. At the same time, I was communicating with friends around the world on social media sites and a little stunned by the lack of knowledge many displayed. After a full day of editing how Kim's death might play out socially, financially, militarily, politically and in terms of foreign affairs, I headed to the VFW and discussed similar matters with U.S. military and contractor friends.
So, some thoughts on what might happen now, with the proviso that much about North Korea is supposition and guesswork BUT when you study it closely, there are noticeable trends. It's also a particular interest of mine and I spend a lot of time discussing the possible meaning of those actions we see with experts from South Korea, the United States and China. Many of the opinions I previously held have changed of late because of conversations with a Chinese friend and colleague who did his PhD on North Korea while in China. It's enlightening to add that perspective to the mix.
Kim Jong-il's death was sudden and unexpected, to everyone. North Korea has been building up to next year's 100th anniversary of the birth of NK founder Kim Il-sung, by which Jong-il had pledged to make the North a "thriving" nation. Yes, I know how laughable that sounds to most outsiders and how impossible it would sound to the North's starving rural populace but much investment has been made by outside countries recently and you can even take a birthday tour.. There has been supposition that the senior Kim would take that opportunity to hand over the reins to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. I don't think he was expecting to die before then either.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. As amusing as Jong-il may have been in "Team America World Police," he was never so funny on the world stage. Psychologically, take any child, constantly assure them they are God-like and all-powerful and never, ever say "no" to them and you have the recipe for a monster. Have that child reach adulthood ruling a country where his word is law and nobody dares say "no" because to do so means death, and you have Jong-il. It has long been a concern that, as he watches his empire slowly slip away (increasing defections, technology opening borders virtually and bringing news of the outside world to the Hermit Kingdom) and his health decline, and with only a third-and-last choice successor to continue the dynasty, he might choose to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. That would secure his place in the history books forever. Obviously, that's now off the table.
Jong-un is not Jong-il. By all indications, he's a bit of a disappointment. He also had a completely different upbringing and doesn't, I believe, have the arrogant self-confidence of his father. Remember, this is the third son, and he was only chosen as heir-apparent a year ago because both his older brothers were sorely lacking. He was not raised to expect to become "Dear Leader" and is possibly well out of his depth. That could play out well or badly, depending on the advice and guidance he receives.
The transition looks likely to be smooth, at least at first. The military has already pledged to support Jong-un and the generals hold immense power in the North. The people are accustomed to feudal and dynastic succession and also have a history of accepting young rulers. Korea (and China, it's strongest neighbor and major ally) have in their histories child kings (and emperors) mentored by regents. Jong-un is not quite a child, but he is young and untested. To support and mentor him, he has Kim Kyong-hui, his father's younger sister who is a four-star general and a member of the North's Politburo, and her husband, Jang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and an alternate member of the Politburo. If Jong-un heeds their advice and that of the generals, he should survive. At least in the short-term.
Longer-term, there is likely to be the political and power jockeying that takes place with any leadership transition. The most likely sources of trouble are probably within the military. Mid-level officers with ambition may want to move up more quickly than is occurring and could take advantage of the situation. Lower down the food chain are the frontline soldiers and guards, whose tendency to do things without thinking them through or clearing them with their chain of command may increase in the current uncertainty. Last month's reported shooting of a supposed North Korean defector across the river border and on Chinese soil was unlikely to be on orders from above but it happened. China, mere days after the report, gave a group of 19 NK defectors official transit to South Korea, rather than sending them back to a less-than-welcoming repatriation as they usually do. Those two events may not be related but hair-trigger responses from undisciplined border guards could easily get out of hand.
Jong-il's death does not mean automatic reunification. Even if Jong-un fails as a leader and is removed, the military has long held power and will not give it up easily.
This may be a game-changer in next year's general (April) and presidential (December) elections in the South. Current voter sentiment is against a conservative ruling party that is viewed as corrupt and favoring the rich (why does this sound familiar?) and could be seen to result in a leftist, pro-unification, anti-U.S. government next year. That may change as South Koreans, post-Jong-il's death, consider the cost of reunification, particularly in the current economic climate.
"May you live in interesting times" is often viewed as a curse. For a writer, interesting times are a blessing, even if occasionally uncomfortable. There is no question that these are interesting times on the Korean Peninsula.