Pyongyang's Options After Kim Jong Il

The Hermit Kingdom's Quest for Continuity


(Ray Cunningham/ flickr)

Kim Jong Il was a man responsible for imprisoning hundreds of thousands of his countrymen; testing two nuclear devices; deploying hundreds of ballistic missiles aimed at Tokyo and Seoul; and masterminding international drug, kidnapping, and nuclear weapons rings. A world without him, at least in theory, should be safer and more stable.

What comes after Kim, however, might deliver neither. Kim Jong Il did everything he could in the last two years of his life to groom his successor and son -- the 28-year-old Kim Jung Un -- to ensure continuity. Moreover, North Korea's generals and party leaders have every incentive to sustain the Kim family's cult of personality and make his son a success, since their own power and survival depends on it. But strongmen such as Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung are the exception rather than the norm in Korean political culture. The more familiar pattern is for court intrigue to tear the leadership apart and draw in powerful neighbors, which is precisely what happened with the collapse of the last monarchical dynasty in Korea at the end of the 19th Century.

The hazards of the power transition will not be immediately apparent. North Korea will enter a period of prolonged mourning for and hagiography of the Dear Leader (as Kim Jong Il was known), just as it did when the Great Leader, Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994. Back then, Kim Jong Il kept a low profile for months after his father's death to demonstrate his filial loyalty and respect. Kim Jong Un, the Dear Leader's son and heir, will presumably do much the same.

As the hermit kingdom retreats into its shell, the Obama administration will be desperate to know what is happening. North Korea will probably put plans for a third round of U.S.-North Korean talks on hold to focus on mourning and transition. For Washington, technical surveillance and limited human intelligence will continue

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