Editorial: Death of Kim Jong Il

Chaos during transfer of power must be prevented

Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s supreme leader, has died. He reportedly suffered a heart attack while aboard a train. The sudden report of his death has sent shock waves through neighboring countries and caused widespread anxiety as well.

North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and missiles and was involved in the abduction of Japanese nationals. Because of the enormous power held by this dictator, the transfer of power to Kim Jong Il’s successor in the wake of his death will entail various destabilizing factors. Japan must cooperate with both South Korea and the United States and closely follow developments.

In August Kim visited Russia and China, and last week news reports showed him on an inspection tour in North Korea, so the deterioration in his health seemed sudden.

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong Il’s father, Kim Il Sung, and 2012 has been characterized as an important milestone that will "open the great gate to a powerful nation." No doubt the North Korean leadership has also been shocked by Kim Jong Il’s sudden death.

The North Korean news media have touted Kim Jong Il’s third son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor. In September of last year Jong Un was named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. He also accompanied his father on inspection tours in North Korea and sat in on talks with key figures from abroad, consolidating his foothold for the transfer of power.

Nevertheless he is still in his 20s, and there are questions about his ability to lead. Some people speculate that there will essentially be a system of collective leadership under which Jong Un is surrounded by relatives and others who advise him.

Kim Jong Il was chosen as a member of the Politburo and solidified his position as his father’s successor while still in his 30s, and he assumed the reins of power over a 20-year period until the death of his father. By comparison, the foundation of the new regime will be undeniably weak in certain respects. In order to demonstrate its power to other countries and clamp down domestically, North Korea may engage in provocative military behavior toward South Korea or other countries.

Chaos may also occur in which a flood of destitute North Koreans flee the country.

Kim Jong Il displayed a willingness to engage in dialogue, holding talks with the president of South Korea in 2000 and 2007 and meeting with then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002 and 2004.

On the other hand, he repeatedly engaged in brinkmanship in which he fanned a sense of crisis and then pressed the U.S. to negotiate.

North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Since then it has announced the start of a uranium enrichment program.

North Korea has stuck to its “military-first politics,” and tensions with South Korea have risen in recent months. North Korea is suspected of torpedoing a South Korean patrol boat in March of last year, and in November it fired on Yeonpyeong Island. Some regard these actions as evidence that Jong Un had seized control of the military and displayed provocative behavior.

It is highly likely that North Korea’s military-first politics will be continued for the time being, but there is also a risk that the nation will decline as a result. In that case it will take a long time to resolve the problem of shortages of food and other items, and dialogue with the international community will be closed off.

Early this year a Russian institute stated that the collapse of the North Korean regime was underway and that the process of unification under the leadership of South Korea would begin in the 2020s, also seemingly anticipating this sort of chaos.

We would like to see China, which has been a backer of North Korea, call for self-restraint on the part of the new North Korean leadership and play a role in the prevention of accidents.

The Japanese government must also work with South Korea and others to avoid chaos during the transition to the new regime. Opportunities for dialogue must again be created in order to achieve stability in East Asia.

(Originally published on December 20, 2011)