The entire world was shocked by the news of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who was as vicious a dictator as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin or Mao Zedong.
What are the political capabilities of Kim Jong Un, who has succeeded his father? Can North Korea continue the dynastic regime in the way that his grandfather would have wanted?
Both the United States and China, which have keen interest in how things develop in North Korea, have reacted calmly to the dictator’s death. The ideal scenario for Washington would be to see North Korea open its economy and walk toward political democratization.
Hopefully Washington may want the Korean Peninsula unified under South Korea’s initiatives. But it is doubtful whether Beijing would accept North Korea leaving its fold through reform and opening up. It is also doubtful whether Beijing would succeed in preventing such a pro-democracy movement from reaching it.
Reaction to Kim Jong Il’s demise varied from country to country. British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed the hope that Pyongyang would work toward joining the international community and improving people’s livelihoods by abandoning its “military first” policy.
A similar view was expressed by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. He said the death of Kim Jong Il offers a chance to North Korea. It seems difficult for him even to imagine that an autocratic dynasty still exists in the Far East at a time when one dictatorship after another has fallen in North Africa and the Middle East.
Perhaps the most candid comment came from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He expressed the hope that Kim Jong Il’s death will bring positive change in which North Korean citizens can free themselves from the isolation, suppression and hardship of the past six decades.
It is clear that he was calling on North Koreans to stand up against the regime. Such a blunt remark could not have come from Japan, China, the U.S. or Russia.
It would be difficult to expect Kim Jong Un to be able to exercise full leadership in the post-Kim Jong Il era. The key question is who will be North Korea’s true decision maker. Even though many predict that the country will be run by a collective leadership comprising Kim family members and leaders of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) and the military, it is difficult to pinpoint a central figure.
Victor Cha, professor at Georgetown University, says he can only think of an arrangement in which Kim Kyong Hui, a sister of Kim Jong Il (the new leader’s aunt) and current director of the Light Industry Department of the KWP, and her husband Jang Sung Taek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, help Kim Jong Un to lead.
Cha, a Korean American who served as director for Asian affairs of the U.S. National Security Council under President George W. Bush, wrote in the Dec. 20 issue of the Financial Times that military leaders in Pyongyang are not at all pleased with the promotion of Kim Jong Un to the status of a “general” in the Korean People’s Army in September 2010, given his total lack of military experience.
Cha says that’s one reason why the elder Kim had made Jang Sun Taek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle-in-law, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission.
At a time when world leaders are worried about moves of Kim Jong Un and those close to him, the Dec. 19 editorial of the Financial Times made a comment to the point. It said that while the instability of a nuclear-armed country (North Korea) does not benefit any other country, the most dreadful scenario, in the event of the demise of the Kim dynasty, would be a clash between the Chinese and U.S. armed forces as they enter North Korea to control its nuclear facilities.
John R. Bolton, former U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Dec. 20 that political struggles started in Pyongyang right after Kim Jong Il died, as evidenced by the two-day delay in the official announcement of his death.
He said military leaders have not reached a unified view on whether to recognize the hereditary succession of power from the father Kim to his son and that many military leaders are not prepared to easily accept the argument that the young Kim is capable or worthy of receiving support.
After all, North Korea is a lawless country that, after Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in September 2009, fired the long-range missile Taepodong and carried out its second nuclear bomb test. It also is alleged to have sunk a South Korean naval patrol ship in the Yellow Sea with a torpedo, and bombarded the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.
These and other events of the past make it all the more difficult to rule out the possibility of Pyongyang resorting to new belligerent tactics just to prove that the new regime is united under Kim Jong Un, the KWP and the military. That is why American forces in South Korea as well as Chinese and South Korean forces have been alerted. Yet, the Japanese government held only a 10-minute session of its National Security Council. What are Japanese officials thinking?
Any military provocation by North Korea would prompt action on the part of the U.S. and South Korean forces guarding the areas just south of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas. In such a case, Chinese military intervention, such as by crossing the China-North Korea border along the Yalu River, cannot be ruled out.
An armed clash in the Korean Peninsula would be the worst nightmare for the U.S. after it pulled out its forces from Iraq amid plans to do the same in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
While it is attempting to build up its presence and influence in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. simply cannot afford to go into another war in Asia as American public opinion is tired of the country’s military involvements in Central Asia and the Middle East for the past decade. The Pentagon’s budget is due to be slashed by $1 trillion over the next 10 years.
China, too, has so many domestic problems that confronting the U.S. and South Korean forces in the Korean Peninsula is unthinkable. But the fact that Beijing is obligated under its Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty with North Korea to come to it aid in the event of an attack by a third party should be taken into consideration.
Beijing would dread to see the two Koreas reunited under the initiative of the democratic regime in the South, because that would only encourage the pro-democracy forces within China and the anti-government movement among minority ethnic groups such as Tibetans and Uighurs. Supporting North Korea until the last breath could result in further isolation for China internationally. This is a dilemma for China.
What kind of man is Kim Jong Un? Is he going to pursue his father’s bellicose and expansionary policies and lead his nation to a total catastrophe? Or is he going to switch to reform? Either scenario would force a major decision on Beijing sooner or later.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the January issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japan’s political, social and economic scenes.