Feature

The implications of Kim Jong Il’s death

Will North Korea's new leadership continue the bellicose path of Kim Jong Il or try to improve relations with its neightbors and with it own people?

What happened
The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il last week left neighboring Asian nations on high alert, amid fears that the world’s most reclusive and repressive regime might now implode violently or lash out in a show of strength. The 69-year-old “Dear Leader” died of a sudden heart attack over the weekend, plunging the country into a state of mourning marked by histrionic public displays of wailing citizens collapsing in grief. Kim’s son Kim Jong Un, 27, has since been named “Great Successor” by the state-run media. But observers suspect the nuclear-armed country might shift to collective rule under the untested, younger Kim, his 65-year-old uncle Jang Song Thaek, and select leaders of the country’s powerful military.

The U.S. and South Korea put their military forces in the area on high alert, out of concern that North Korea might flex its muscles in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death. Under the dictator’s rule, the country pursued a bellicose “military first” strategy, procuring and testing nuclear weapons in breach of international law, and launching periodic attacks on South Korean ships and territory. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that if the new leadership chose the path of “improving relations with its neighbors and respecting the rights of its people,” the U.S. would help North Korea “usher in a new era of peace, prosperity, and lasting security.”

What the editorials said
Kim Jong Il was an easy dictator to laugh at, said The New Republic, with his ever-present sunglasses, his platform shoes, and his obsession with American celebrities like Michael Jordan and Elizabeth Taylor. But “no single person who lived in the last few decades has inflicted as much suffering and cruelty on others.” While Kim and the Communist leadership wallowed in luxuries, up to 2 million North Koreans died in the famine of the 1990s, and malnutrition and starvation are still widespread. As many as 200,000 political prisoners suffer incomprehensible deprivation and brutality in Kim’s prison camps, where they sometimes are forced to watch family members being butchered.

Kim’s brutal regime was enabled by the “self-interested calculations of surrounding powers,” said The Washington Post. Prosperous South Korea feared the crippling cost of reunification if its northern neighbor failed. China did not want a pro-Western Korea on its doorstep. And the U.S. “always had higher priorities than the welfare of North Koreans.” In the strategic decision-making to come, let’s not ignore “the fate of the enslaved North Korean people.”

What the columnists said
A collapse of North Korea is a real possibility, said John Bolton in The Wall Street Journal. That would be dangerous, unleashing hundreds of thousands of refugees, and raising the possibility that the regime’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons could be dispersed to terrorists. But Kim’s death is also an “enormous opportunity” to “peacefully reunite the two Koreas,” if the Obama administration plays it smart. “Our policy should be regime change, gradual and patient if necessary,” said Dan Blumenthal in NationalReview.com. The Kim dynasty is too dangerous to leave in place.

Actually, Washington is “powerless” over what happens next, said Victor Cha in The New York Times. North Korea is now an economic basket case, propped up by China, and it is Beijing that will determine the country’s immediate future. Its rulers like having a weak communist state on its border, instead of a reunified, democratic Korea. But to keep North Korea from collapsing, China may have to “effectively adopt it as a province.”

No major changes will occur right away, as North Korea turns inward, said Michael J. Green in The Washington Post. But by mid-2012, the regime’s belligerent military leaders will assert their influence over the younger Kim’s agenda. They truly believe they can use their nuclear weapons “to make demands of the U.S. as an equal nuclear state.” As crazy as he might have been, Kim Jong Il knew when to threaten and when to back off. No one is confident, however, that “the younger Kim knows how to play the same dangerous game without crossing the line.”

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