Kim Jong Il and Where Now?

A guest post by our Korean correspondent, James Barnett.

As widely reported, Kim Jong Il is dead. It’s not surprising given his health has been poor for at least three years now, which is perhaps why I’m not as worried as I could be (living in South Korea). I think that Jong Il and his leadership hierarchy will have been planning this for at least the last three years.

The likely new leader is set to be Kim Jong Un but how much actual power he will have remains to be seen. Jong Un is still very young (expect to see him be 30 this year so that Kim Il Sung is 100, Kim Jong Il 70 and Kim Jong Un 30 – they like their symmetry in numbers) and therefore inexperienced, also he still has a relatively low profile (although my guide in NK said “I really hope Kim Jong Un is our next leader” when I asked him) since he has only been known to the people for about a year. I think the actual power is going to lie in the hands of Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong Il’s brother in law, who is already number two in the country. Basically I think Jong Un will be a figure head until he gains more age and experience (age being very important in Korean culture).

However there is the alternative route…

Kim Jong Un has not undergone the same grooming as Kim Jong Il did. Jong Il was handling the internal running of the country for at least two years before his father’s death as well as being the head of the army. Yet it still took him 3 years to consolidate power when Il Sung died. So it is not unreasonable to think that things could go horribly wrong. Don’t go expecting a popular revolt though, I’m not sure those two words exist in North Korean vocabulary. The people will follow whoever eventually takes power. If there is a power vacuum then I’d imagine the very large military will fight to fill it. That scenario is scary, there are three outcomes:

  1. A group of military leaders succeeds in gaining control quickly and things return to normal.
  2. A long bitter power struggle erupts, bad for the people and the country (possible civil war!?)
  3. China steps in and “influences” things. China only entered the Korean war in order to prevent US soldiers being on it’s border. It is in China’s best interests to preserve North Korea as a separate state. Therefore they will do all that is necessary to stop an implosion.

The last question I guess one could have is: will there be a war? No. Why would there be? For many reasons, the South is not going to invade; and starting a full scale war (which they will lose) is not going to help anyone in North Korea consolidate power. So, I for one feel quite safe sitting here in the South.

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