One of the world’s last Communist regimes may be about to unravel. But unlike the 1989-1991 fall of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact puppet states in Central and Eastern Europe, the collapse of North Korea could have far-reaching and destructive aftershocks. Moreover, there is little evidence that any of the major powers that will be affected are prepared for—or even want to acknowledge the possibility of—what comes next.
With the death of Kim Jong Il, as when his father Kim Il Sung died in 1994, the Kim Family Regime, or KFR as it is referred to by U.S. military planners, is doing its best to show an orderly and stable transition of power from one Kim to the next—the 27- (or 28) year-old Kim Jong Eun, the son that Kim Jong Il previously designated as his successor.
The ascension of the younger Kim to his father’s (and grandfather’s) exalted position as the “Great Leader” cements the KFR’s status as a Communist monarchy (a category of governance that is anathema to the Marxist-Leninist principles that are supposedly the North Korea’s state ideology). But there are signs that this transition is not as stable as the one when Kim Jong Il took the reins of state authority from Kim Il Sung in 1994. The “most telling indicator,” according to a colleague based in Beijing, “is that it took more than 48 hours for the DPRK to announce the death of Kim Jong Il. The regime can try to deflect questions by claiming that there is a Confucian tradition of a 30-hour period of mourning before a death is to be announced, but the prolonged span of time suggests a less than orderly transfer of power.”
Despite this sign of uncertainty, the KFR is following the well-known script for the death of a despotic Communist dictator. The obligatory announcement of a funeral committee of no less than 232 persons recalls the macabre protocol established in the darkest days of Soviet Union’s Stalinist terror that Kim Il Sung tutored under.
As the designated successor, Kim Jong Eun is number one on the committee and the others are then listed in the order of their importance. Immediately after Great Leader 3.0 are the members of the “standing committee” of the ruling Communist party’s Politburo, then the other full-status members and candidate members. Analysts based in South Korea believe the ordering of names suggests that the younger Kim is placing the center of gravity with the Korean Worker’s Party and elevating it above that of the DPRK military establishment.
The late Kim Jong Il’s brother in-law, Jang Son -Taek, and O Kuk Ryol, the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, are further down the list than one might have expected—considering that the former was more or less acting as the ruling regent while the older Kim’s health was fading and the younger Kim was still in “training” to take over.
This presents the first of several potential unhappy scenarios. North Korea hanging together and not turning into a lawless, famine-stricken wasteland with refugees streaming across the border into China depends on ruthless, one-man rule backed by an unforgiving police apparatus. But there is more than one analyst predicting that Jang Song Taek is not likely to turn over absolute power to the young Kim. Instead he could try and carve a niche for himself in the power structure and turn the once-unified ruling order into a group of squabbling factions.
China is up there with South Korea on the list of those who could be most adversely affected by North Korean disintegration, but the officialdom in Beijing continues to embody the triumph of hope over experience. The official Foreign Ministry statement “boils down to saying that ‘we loved Kim Jong Il and we are prepared to love Kim Jong Eun,’” according to one Beijing analyst, but it is clear that Beijing wants the younger Kim to know that continuing to love him will be contingent upon changes in the regime’s policies.
Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the prestigious Strategic Research Centre at Peking University and one of the academics that the Communist state in Beijing permits to talk openly with the press, told Australian news outlets that China had “sent clear and definitive signals” in recognizing Kim Jong Eun as the next leader, but that they expected him to stabilize the nation. “China wants stability in North Korea's power transition, as well as its domestic situation. Instability is not in the interests of China,” he said. “China really wants North Korea to understand that reform and opening up are crucial to its survival.”
That is a message from Beijing that has so far fallen on deaf ears in Pyongyang. Attempts to show what could be done with private enterprise and economic reform under the banner of “socialist development and progress” by taking Kim Jong Il on a tour of China’s showcase city of Shanghai when he visited in 2006 did almost nothing to change his harsh rule back home. China has been forced to continue to prop up the DPRK with food and fuel shipments and other handouts to keep the country from collapsing.
I was in Beijing during the 2010 visits of both Kims —when the elder introduced his son to the Chinese ruling order and essentially told them “this is who you are going to be dealing with very soon.” No one knows much of what transpired during those visits, but the conversations seem to have been more about ensuring that the gravy train of generous Chinese economic assistance would continue once the young Kim took over rather than promises that he would make radical changes. (Not surprisingly, it appears that Chinese president Hu Jintao may be the only foreign leader to attend Kim’s funeral today.)
In a North Korean collapse, South Korea is the other nation that could find itself with millions of hungry mouths to feed on its doorstep—and would also inherit a broken-down, underdeveloped and barren land that will cost billions to re-build. But, as diplomats in Beijing told me, “the South Koreans had no clue that Kim Jong Il was even dead. They knew nothing until they heard the announcement on the North’s state radio, which makes you wonder how closely they are watching their northern brethren—or if they just did not want to know.”
“No one wants North Korea to change,” said a Western diplomat in Beijing. “No one wants to accept the responsibility of taking over if the regime falls. This is why everyone allowed the first and second generation of Kims to murder, starve and terrorize their population—and they may well allow the third of the Kims to do the same—as long as the state does not collapse.” But unless Kim Jong Eun is as ruthless and capable as his forebears, the DPRK’s neighbors may soon have to learn to think the unthinkable.