Will the world be a safer place without North Korean leader Kim Jong-il? It’s a question that experts have debated endlessly – and inconclusively – in recent years as reports surfaced that the despot’s health was in decline.
Now that Kim is dead, at 69, of a reported heart attack while travelling by train on Saturday, the answer could still elude experts. That’s because too much depends on an unknown: whether Kim’s successor, Kim Jong-un, can quickly fill the leadership vacuum and win the confidence of the regime’s key power brokers. It was only in September 2010 that the elder Kim began trotting out his third son as the Chosen One.
Pyongyang’s official stance is that Kim Jong-un is in charge. Experts say that the foreign-educated youngster, who is believed to be in his late twenties, has the backing of the country’s top generals, an influential constituency. He would be the third generation in the family dynasty to rule the country since the Korean War. “Under the leadership of Kim Jong-un we should turn our sorrow into strength and courage and overcome the present difficulties,” the Workers’ Party and top government officials said in a joint statement, according to state-run Korean Central New Agency.
The elder Kim leaves behind quite a legacy. During his nearly two decades in power, his nuclear ambitions, threats of war and attacks on South Korea – and his willingness to let his own country starve – made him a reviled figure worldwide. Under his rule, North Korea had conducted two nuclear tests, in October 2006 and May 2009, and was thought to have made several nuclear bombs. But lately, Pyongyang appeared to have softened its stance in favour of seeking food aid from the international community.
Still, nobody is taking any chances. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak reacted to Kim’s death by calling an emergency meeting with top military officials and putting the country’s armed forces on high alert. Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also held an emergency meeting with his Cabinet, and ordered diplomats and military officials to prepare for the possibility of unexpected developments.
In Asia, the North Korean regime’s stability is a source of constant concern. If Pyongyang were to collapse, it would remove the danger of a nuclear-armed regime but it would also create new problems for North Korea’s neighbours. Who would prevent the country’s nuclear materiel from falling into the wrong hands? And who would feed and support North Korea’s 24 million people?
South Korea would likely have a massive humanitarian mission on its hands. China, for its part, would likely be unhappy about the prospect of losing a key ally and having to share a border with South Korea – and tens of thousands of US troops stationed there. The best-case scenario is the one that few experts put much stock in at this point: a gradual transition to a freer, democratic state. Expect more uncertainty.