North Korea’s official media announced that Kim Jong-il, the country’s long-time leader, died on Saturday of “physical and mental overwork.” Although Kim had several health problems, particularly after a stroke in August 2008, he had appeared vibrant in recent meetings. As such, the surprise development raises concerns about its impact on Pyongyang’s ongoing leadership transition, regime stability, and North Korean security and foreign policies.
North Korean provocative behavior or military action is unlikely in the near-term. However, Seoul and Washington will be wary that Kim Jong-un, third son of Kim Jong-il and the next leader of North Korea, may feel it necessary in the future to precipitate a crisis to prove his mettle to other senior leaders or deflect attention from the regime’s failings. South Korea announced on Sunday that it had increased the alert of its military and would convene an emergency meeting of its national security council.
Kim’s death eclipses rumors earlier Sunday that North Korea and the United States had made sufficient diplomatic progress to potentially enable a resumption of nuclear negotiations through the six-party talks. It is likely that such negotiations would be postponed as North Korea goes through a mourning period, formalized succession process, and possible retrenchment of its foreign policies.
Succession on Track, but Uncertainties Remain. Following Kim Jong-il’s 2008 stroke, Pyongyang implemented a leadership succession plan to anoint Jong-un as the next leader. He was made a four-star general, despite having never served in the military, and given senior party and military leadership positions. The succession seems to be well underway, but during the past year, several senior officials were removed from office, reportedly as a purge of those resistant to a second North Korean dynastic succession.
Kim’s early death removes a key stability factor for the succession process. Had Kim remained alive longer, it would have given Jong-un greater opportunity to develop his own independent power base of leadership elites loyal to him personally. The North Korean elite has a vested interest in maintaining the system and will assess Jong-un’s ability to protect its interests. The elite will balance a shared sense of external threat against fear of domestic instability from an inexperienced leader. The senior government leadership may assess Jong-un’s shortcomings as sufficient justification for contesting his succession. Elite resistance to Jong-un’s rule could manifest itself in outright opposition or in usurping his power and leaving him a mere figurehead.
North Korea’s Untested New Leader. Kim Jong-un, 28, is a pale reflection of his father and grandfather. He has little experience or accomplishments and only recently announced to senior official positions, and he has not had the decades of grooming and securing of a power base that Jong-il enjoyed before assuming control from his own father, Kim Il-sung. Il-sung had delegated authority for North Korea’s security services and nuclear weapons programs to Jong-il years before he died. During the last years of his father’s life, Jong-il was, for all intents and purposes, the one running the country.
Some experts assess that, since Kim Jong-un spent several years in Switzerland, he may be more amenable to implementing economic and political reform as well as pursuing a less provocative foreign policy. However, Jong-un is likely to continue the same policies as his father and grandfather.
But because he lacks his father’s cult of personality, he will be more reliant on support from senior party and military leaders who are overwhelmingly nationalist and resistant to change. Jong-un will have to base his legitimacy on maintaining the legacy of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il by continuing their nationalist and military-based policies. The new leader will have to reassure the senior leadership that his policies do not pose a risk to regime stability and, by extension, their livelihoods and lives.
Indeed, Jong-un may pursue a policy that is even more hard-line than his father’s. In addition to potentially instigating a crisis in order to generate a “rally around the flag” effect, propaganda would highlight the supposed need for increased vigilance against attempts by outside powers to take advantage of North Korea’s weakness during a leadership transition.
If Jong-un were to pursue such a policy, there would be North Korean announcements to heighten the country’s defenses against the U.S. and South Korea and increase rather than abandon Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Such a tumultuous time, the government would argue, would negate any potential for implementing any economic or political reform that could risk regime instability.
Diplomatic Breakthrough on Hold? Prior to Kim’s death, media reports suggested that the United States and North Korea had made preliminary agreements that opened the door to resumption of multilateral nuclear negotiations. Pyongyang had reportedly acquiesced to U.S. and South Korean preconditions by agreeing to freeze its uranium enrichment program, allow a return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, and place a moratorium on further nuclear and long-range missile tests. In return, it was rumored, the United States would pledge to provide 240,000 tons of food aid in monthly tranches of 20,000 tons.
If the rumors are true, it reflects a tactical diplomatic breakthrough, though one that simply returns the weary boxers back to the ring for what portends to be difficult and contentious negotiations. Given Pyongyang’s cheating on previous accords, Washington and its allies would need to insist on more carefully crafted agreements than previously vaguely written joint statements. Difficulties in monitoring easily hidden uranium facilities would necessitate far more vigorous and intrusive verification measures than were being contemplated when the six-party talks collapsed in 2008.
However, the death of Kim Jong-il would presumably delay a resumption of such negotiations as the new North Korean leadership assesses to what degree it is willing to open up to the outside world. Although the demise of Kim Jong-il provides an opportunity for change on the Korean Peninsula, it is a transition fraught with uncertainty, nervousness, and potential danger.
Bruce Klingner is the Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. Klingner joined Heritage in 2007 after 20 years in the intelligence community working at the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency.