The Kim is dead, long live the Kim!

Special to

By Donald Kirk,

SEOUL — The death of bouffant-coiffed, platform-heel wearing North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il on Saturday ushers in a new era of rampant speculation, pontification and no doubt obfuscation about what’s really going on inside the Hermit Kingdom.

The fact is that Kim Jong-Il late last week appeared just fine as he toured a military strong point, posing beside his son and heir presumptive, Kim Jong-Un. It was not until late on Monday morning that word came through to stand by for an “important announcement” at noon, Korea time.

A North Korean TV presenter announces the death of leader Kim Jong-Il. /AFP

The initial assumption was North Korea was going to beat Washington to the punch with a deal on a “moratorium” on missile and nuclear tests in exchange for resumption of United States food aid to North Korea.

Now all bets are off as North Korea goes into mourning for a man who was known as the “Dear Leader” while ruling his starving people with an iron hand through 17 years in power. What’s sure is that third son Kim Jong-Un is the titular leader. You only had to see his name at the head of the funeral committee to know that the clique around the power center was going to honor his father’s wishes to that extent.

However, we will have to wait to see what happens to moves toward reconciliation between the U.S. and North Korea that appeared well underway even after Kim Jong-Il, 69, had died but before we heard the announcement.

The new U.S. envoy to North Korea, Glyn Davies, was due to return to Beijing this week for talks with a top North Korean official — the prelude, it was widely assumed, to the first six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program since December 2008.

The six-party talks, hosted by Beijing, may come to pass but not until North Korea has gone through a power shift that may be little understood beyond the inner sanctums of power in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-Un may well appear to be his father’s heir, just as his father was heir to power after the death of Kim Il-Sung in July 1994, but Kim Jong-Il was far better prepared than was his son to take over.

Jong-Un, anointed a four-star general by his father and seen standing beside him in an enormous display of military might in October 2010, will have difficulty making his way among the aging generals who control every region of the country.

More immediately, he will have to show he’s capable of dealing with a conniving aunt, Kim Jong-Il’s sister, Kim Kyung-Hui, and her ambitious husband, Jang Song-Thaek. Jang ranks as one of four vice chairmen of the National Defense Commission, the center of power in North Korea, which Kim Jong-Il served as chairman.

How Jong-Un manipulates among generals who know much more about what’s going on, and who’s doing what to whom, within the ruling elite of Pyongyang will be the stuff of intriguing drama — with a denouement that’s far from certain.

It’s possible, though, that the generals, the relatives and in-laws will all decide it’s best for their own survival to rally behind the young man as a unifying, compromise, conciliatory figure — conciliatory, that is, within the top circles of power in Pyongyang. A question for the U.S., South Korea and others will be whether he feels the compulsion to show off his power with rhetoric and perhaps threats or will be in a mood for reconciliation with North Korea’s long-time enemies.
Another question is how the starving, disease-ridden population will take the news. The record of public executions and imprisonment of anyone showing the slightest sign of dissent is not likely to inspire veneration for his memory.

Nonetheless, we can be sure of public displays of weeping and wailing as went on for years after his father’s demise. In that spirit, it was a woman dressed in black traditional hanbok dress who announced Kim’s death from a massive heart attack while on a train. He was apparently on another inspection tour — one of many that he’s made in the past few years despite apparently suffering a stroke in August 2008.

Undoubtedly the death of Jong-Il leaves a power vacuum in North Korea. However, in the past three years the Dear Leader has sought to advance Swiss-educated Jong-Un as his successor after bypassing two older brothers, notably the playboy first-born Kim Jong-Nam, living in luxury in Macau.

“In a situation like that the systems don’t allow for easy adjustment,” said David Straub, former head of the Korea desk at the U.S. State Department. Straub noted the influence of the core inner circle that also includes Kim’s wife, Kim Ok, as key players along with the generals who may form a ruling junta or power behind the throne held by Kim Jong-Un.

In fact, North Korea before Kim’s death appeared to have softened its rhetoric while preparing for what would have been Kim’s 70th birthday in February and huge celebrations surrounding the 100th anniversary of the birth of his long-ruling father, Kim Il-Sung, who died in 1994.

North Korea has conducted two underground nuclear tests, in October 2006 and May 2009 but seemed to have put the threat of a third test on hold while appealing for food aid from the U.S. and South Korea, whose conservative president, Lee Myung-Bak, cut off such aid after his inauguration in February 2008. Lee promptly called an emergency cabinet meeting while South Korean troops went on full emergency alert.

The U.S. envoy on North Korean human rights, Robert King, recently met with a top North Korean official in Beijing to talk about food aid.

“Now we have a situation where South Korean and U.S. officials have to decide very quickly in terms of public statements,” said Straub. “They will have to review and regroup on food aid.”
North Korean officials since the first reports of Kim Jong-Il’s stroke in 2008 had gone to great lengths to demonstrate the strength of the man who imposed a one-man rule over the country that was just as harsh as his father’s.

His health deteriorated sharply after he hosted the late South Korean president, Roh Moo-Hyun, at a summit in Pyongyang in October 2007. Roh had carried on the “Sunshine” policy of reconciliation inaugurated by the late Kim Dae-Hung, who went to Pyongyang for the first inter-Korean summit in June 2000.

Nonetheless, says Straub, “he looked a lot better” when he hosted former U.S. president Bill Clinton in Pyongyang in August 2009. Straub accompanied the former U.S. president on a private plane to Pyongyang to rescue two U.S. television journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had been picked up five months earlier filming along the Tumen River border with China. “He got around just fine,” Straub recalls. “I’m a little surprised he passed away this badly.”

KCNA reported that Kim “suffered an advanced acute myocardial infarction, complicated by serious heart shock, on a train on December 17″. The report said that he had been under “a great mental and physical strain caused by his uninterrupted field guidance tour for the building of a thriving nation.”