Kim Jong Il may be at death’s door, but don’t expect his successor to change North Korea.
On Nov. 2, the state-run North Korean media released several photos of a smiling Kim Jong Il enjoying a soccer match. On most other days, publicizing Kim's attendance at such run-of-the-mill events only serves to reinforce his cult of personality. But these snapshots were meant to serve a different purpose: to prove that the Dear Leader is alive and well -- and in firm control of his dictatorship.
On Nov. 2, the state-run North Korean media released several photos of a smiling Kim Jong Il enjoying a soccer match. On most other days, publicizing Kim’s attendance at such run-of-the-mill events only serves to reinforce his cult of personality. But these snapshots were meant to serve a different purpose: to prove that the Dear Leader is alive and well — and in firm control of his dictatorship.
Rumors have been swirling for months that the 66-year-old Kim is gravely ill. He failed to appear at an important military parade in September celebrating the 60th anniversary of the country’s founding and was a conspicuous no-show for Communist Party anniversary celebrations several weeks later. In late October, Kim failed to attend the funeral of a high-level official.
Given that U.S., Japanese, and South Korean officials believe that Kim suffered a stroke in August, possibly leaving him incapacitated, his unusual absences pushed speculation about the country’s future into overdrive. The newly released photographs did little to dispel the chatter, as the regime did not reveal when the game had actually taken place. What’s more, North Korea observers accustomed to reading the tea leaves noticed that Kim is not using his left arm in the photos, possibly indicating paralysis.
But because reliable information about the situation inside the country is so rare, there is scant agreement on what a post-Kim state might look like. There is only an overwhelming sense that the countrys behavior will change — for better or for worse. For some, a new leader in Pyongyang will likely bring an end to a long and brutal dictatorship, allowing peace on the Korean Peninsula to finally emerge. Most observers, however, are far more pessimistic. They’re concerned that a messy power transfer in the event of Kims death or incapacitation will spell chaos: an overwhelming influx of refugees into South Korea and a power vacuum at the heart of the regime, a terrifying prospect given North Korea’s status as a nuclear power.
Before activating DEFCON 3, however, it is worth taking a look at the foreign-policy consequences of the natural deaths of leaders throughout history. More than 200 heads of state have died in office since 1875, most of them from natural causes. And contrary to the logic of great man historians, not much changed when these leaders died. Usually, dictators go out not with a bang, but with an anticlimactic whimper. All in all, the structural forces of international relations outweigh the individual characteristics of leaders. Power and politics trump personality.
This is true even in the most autocratic of autocracies, countries such as North Korea where power is so concentrated that one might expect radical policy shifts after the death of a leader. Little changed for Haiti’s citizens and neighbors after 1971, when Jean-Claude Duvalier succeeded his father, Franois. The Duvalier kleptocracy continued with little interruption, as did the country’s uneasy relationship with the Dominican Republic. Notably, in 1994, nothing changed in North Korea when Kim Jong Il succeeded his father, Kim Il Sung. North Koreans’ standard of living kept plummeting as the government poured its limited resources into its nuclear program, upping its nukes-to-butter ratio. And in Cuba, few anticipated just how little has changed since Fidel Castro stepped down earlier this year. His brother Raul has shown little inclination to reorient the country.
At first glance, it might seem as if an upcoming power transition in North Korea — whenever it happens — will deviate from the historical norm. For one, unlike his father, who began grooming his heir in the 1970s, Kim has no clear successor. (His eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, probably disqualified himself when he was caught with a forged Dominican Republic passport during an escape to Japan, where Tokyo’s Disneyland topped his itinerary.) And because the regime is so dependent on a cult of personality, removing its central figure would seem to set off a chaotic power grab.
But according to Hwang Jang Yop, a former insider who ruled North Korea’s dominant Workers Party and tutored Kim before defecting to South Korea in 1997, a leadership transition will change nothing. Anyone who replaces Kim can govern the regime, he told South Korean lawmakers in September. Indeed, candidates for the top office are already beginning to emerge from the North Korean haze. The top pick now appears to be Kims brother-in-law Jang Song Taek, a powerful party mandarin.
If Kim is indeed functioning and cares about North Korea’s security, there are incentives for him to spare his country from a power struggle. Although he may want to project strategic ambiguity in the short run by keeping the world guessing about the identity of his successor, long-term international uncertainty about North Korea doesnt serve anyone. An indecisive power transition would certainly foster perceptions that North Korea is weak. And if we know anything about North Korea, it is that it is sensitive about appearing weak.
It is tempting to blame North Korean insolence on an irrational dictator. But consider the view from Pyongyang. South of the demilitarized zone, in South Korea, the United States has 26,000 troops deployed; to the east, in Japan, there are 33,000 of them. The world’s only superpower — now with a history of preventive invasion — has labeled North Korea as part of an axis of evil, and the main U.S. ally in the region, Japan, could go nuclear in a matter of months if it so desired. With this in mind, a nuclear deterrent seems, yes, rational.
Regardless of who succeeds Kim, or what form a new government might take, the strategic situation faced by the country on the day after his death will mirror the strategic situation the day before. North Korea will still want to be a nuclear state, will still want to receive economic aid, and will still want to be seen as relevant. So don’t expect a kinder, gentler regime. Opposing the United States is part and parcel of the country’s identity, not merely Kim’s disposition.
With one of the most opaque regimes in the world, it is anyone’s guess what will happen when North Korea’s leader dies, and diplomatic jitters are only natural. But if history provides any lesson, it is that we should expect neither panic nor progress on the peninsula. Just more of the same.
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