The death of Kim Jong Il two months before his 70th birthday grabbed the headlines worldwide. False reports of his death had been a recurrent phenomenon, but his passing, when it did happen, came unexpectedly. The communist leader's death possibly marks a watershed moment between distinct epochs in the history of the DPRK, prompting intense debates over the scenarios of the anticipated transition.
Three overarching themes are present in the flow of essentially unfriendly projections for North Korea:
• Kim Jong Un, late Kim Jong Il's 28-year old third son and successor, is too young, clearly lacks experience, and possibly has mental health problems, which altogether means that he is unable to be a leader of his country, has no chance to be accepted as such by the population, and is going to be controlled by the elder members of his family clan.
• As a result, various groups within the North Korean political elite will be confronted with the irresistible temptation to not only run the county from behind the scenes, but in the full sense to seize power in the country, the likely outcome being a period of internal strife and a series of military coups, plus total destabilization if not a civil war in the DPRK.
• Given the above, an intervention – launched by the US in tandem with South Korea, by China, or even by both forces – will quickly become imminent, and the North Korean population which is lethally tired of the dictatorial rule will welcome the invaders as liberators. At the bottom line, North Korea will see the long-awaited regime change.
The following circumstances should be taken into account to assess the forecasts realistically. The permanently reiterated doubts over the abilities and mental health of Kim Jong Un, whose status of the “great successor “ has already been confirmed in Pyongyang, notably resemble those expressed regarding Kim Jong Il at the time of his ascension to power in 1994. The myth of Kim Jong Il's complete inferiority to his father was inflated by the Western media but failed the test of the empirical reality during the June, 2000 inter-Korean summit, as foreign journalists flocked to Pyongyang to accompany the ROK president Kim Dae-jung to discover that the DPRK leader was a healthy, energetic, and highly competent individual. These days, the Western media are putting together the image of a sickly Kim Jong Un but also mention that he went to college in Switzerland, received decent European education, and used to play basketball – and pretend to be overlooking the contradiction.
The current mass expressions of grief in North Korea may seem shocking to foreigners but certainly cannot be written off as insincere. It is true that collectivism is pervasive in the heavily organized North Korea, and that the arrangement affects the way emotions are displayed, but denying that – in line with the Confucian tradition – the perception of the country leader as the father of the nation is widespread among the population and that people are indeed mourning Kim Jong Il would be unfair. The phenomenon – the tendency within the original North Korean political culture to ascribe a special role to the country leader – has a legitimizing impact on Kim Jong Un's claim to power. It is true that Kim Jong Un is very young, has a minimal record of involvement in state affairs, and, in fact, has held the official successor status for just slightly over a year. Still, he learned a lot over the period of time acting as his father's apprentice and made no blunders in the process. Importantly, the nation actually sees him as the successor. For example, I gathered from conversations with ordinary North Koreans that they feel deeply impressed by the fact that outwardly Kim Jong Un looks very much like his grandfather, founder of N. Korea Kim Il Sung.
Obviously, both Kim Jong Un and the whole the DPRK are at the moment picking up a tough challenge. From now on a lot will depend on Kim Jong Un's aptitude, willpower, etc. His elder peers – the stalwarts from his father's inner entourage – will certainly do their best to help him at the initial phase, but the type of interaction should not be interpreted as evidence that Kim Jong Un will have a purely nominal status. For North Korea, combining the leader's singular status with collectivism in top-level decision-making is a long-standing tradition, though the balance between the two elements fluctuates. It is worth mentioning in the context that even Kim Il Sung was not invariably the number one figure in North Korea's party and administration (in the initial stages) and that, even at the peaks of their careers, neither he nor Kim Jong Il sidelined such collective governance bodies as the central committee of the Labor party, the state defense committee, etc.
Predictions that the DPRK will shortly plunge into chaos and that a tide of infighting will sweep over its leadership are completely groundless. Any serious watcher is fully aware of the country's robust political stability, with nothing like an organized opposition or public protests of considerable proportions in sight.
It is natural that divisions over individual issues do exist in the administration of the DPRK as in that of any other country. Limited controversy erupted over the forms and pace of the economic reform which was launched in North Korea in 2002. An attempt was made in November, 2009 to implement a national currency devaluation which could de facto translate into savings confiscation and was read by experts as an effort meant to make the country revert to the pre-reform condition. In a matter of months, the North Korean government realized that the step was counterproductive and abandoned the whole plan, removing the restrictions fleetingly imposed on market activity. The reversal showed that the reformist faction in the North Korean administration generally prevails over conservatives.
At the same time, the divisions in the DPRK do not seem to escalate into irreconcilable discord. The constant external threat facing the country further cements its administration. Pyongyang is mindful of its opponents' strategy focused on inducing regime change in the DPRK and monitors the emergency military planning of the US-S. Korea alliance which certainly had special designs to set in motion in the event of a sudden death of the North Korean leader. The developments in Libya and the killing of M. Gadhafi made North Koreans realize what kind of punishment the West administers for defiance. The conclusions drawn in Pyongyang took the shape of a special official statement to the effect that Gadhafi's key mistake had been to rely on the West's promises and to scrap Libya's nuclear program in return for international security guarantees. The statement said that Gadhafi's regime came under strike as soon as it showed it would not acquire a nuclear deterrent and that N. Korea would never make the same mistake but would upgrade its defense potential including the nuclear capabilities.
The N. Korean political elite and the politically active part of the country's society have no illusions as to their survival chances in the case of a regime change. More than any ideological directives, such concerns make it maintain full cohesion, stay loyal to the country leader, and ruthlessly suppress any tendencies towards internal discord.
At least in the mid-term, we will see complete continuity in the DPRK’s foreign and domestic policies, with its young leader likely emphasizing allegiance to his father's legacy. The North Korean approach to the key foreign-policy issues including its relations with Russia and involvement in the six-party talks over the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula will therefore remain unchanged. Symbolically, the last foreign visit paid by late Kim Jong Il was a tour of Russia during which he met with Russian president D. Medvedev in August, 2011 in Ulan-Ude. It is a safe bet that the cooperation between Russia and the DPRK will continue and that the key bilateral economic projects will be implemented in its framework as planned.
It should be noted that the recent developments in North Korea opened up new opportunities to its opponents, and time will show in what form they are going to seize them. At the moment US conservatives such as the Republican party's candidate for presidential nomination M. Romney are urging greater pressure on North Korea in connection with the inexperienced Kim Jong Un's taking late Kim Jong Il's place with regime change as the end goal. On the other hand, now comes up an opportune situation to turn the page on the past conflicts and to start cultivating contacts with the young North Korean leader. An expression of condolences is a typical first step under the circumstances. It instills hope that, in contrast to how the situation was handled when Kim Il Sung died in 1994, Seoul sent those this time. No doubt, the biggest role in rebuilding bridges to North Korea could be taken by the USA. Washington's usual foreign-policy planning strategy is to compile parallel scenarios and to permanently stay prepared to make a political U-turn. The switching from a condition bordering on a real war to fruitful cooperation in the wake of Kim IL Sung's death and the signing of the 1994 framework agreement provided a vivid example of such flexibility. The Administration of G. Bush made a similar maneuver in 2007.
It became known that over the past several days US Secretary of State H. Clinton engaged in intense consultations with representatives of the countries neighboring North Korea. In particular, she had several phone conversations with the foreign ministers of Russia and China. The contents of the talks remained undisclosed, but hypothetically Washington could be trying to bounce at least some kind of unarticulated consent to regime change in the DPRK out its partners. If this is the case, the probability that the endeavors produced any results is minimal. To stress the importance of its ties with the DPRK, Beijing took an unprecedented diplomatic step when China's leader Hu Jintao and eight other top Chinese officials visited the N. Korean embassy to deliver condolences.
Alternative schemes may nevertheless materialize in the game played out between Washington and Pyongyang. H. Clinton's visit to Burma, the country that used to draw Washington's condemnations in unsurpassed quantities as a “rogue state”, was a bold initiative, and an analogous breakthrough in dealing with N. Korea may yet be brewing (the precedent being M. Albright's 2000 visit to Pyongyang). In any case, today's situation offers unique opportunities to break the stalemate in the US-DPRK and inter-Korean relations.
Overall, the situation in the DPRK remains stable, with Moscow and Beijing firmly espousing the peace, stability and status quo on the Korean Peninsula. Washington and Seoul are facing a dilemma of either boosting pressure on Pyongyang with the aim of irreversibly breaking its resistance (a strategy loaded with unlike results and extreme risks, it should be noted) or giving their policies vis-a-vis North Korea a serious facelift.