The absence of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, at celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the country’s founding triggered a frenzy of speculation. There were suggestions that he had been incapacitated by a stroke – the conclusion now known to have been reached by South Korea’s intelligence service – that he had died, or even that he had been dead for years, his part played by body doubles.
Some say the speculation was an overreaction, but others counter that – whether or not Mr Kim recovers from his present ill health – one day he will die or become permanently incapacitated. They say it is no bad thing to begin addressing questions of his succession, and how the world will respond to his demise.
For Leonid Petrov, North Korea historian at Australian National University, this tug of war over reforms is key to how North Koreans will respond to the demise of Kim Jong-il. He says the population was badly traumatised by the death of Kim Il-sung – partly because of the personality cult which surrounded him, but partly also because it heralded a period of intense isolation and impoverishment in which more than a million people may have died.
Dr Petrov suggests any internal candidate able to preserve short-term stability would probably be more conservative than Kim Jong-il. But he warns against any such candidate attempting to roll back the economic reforms that have allowed North Koreans a little more room to make an independent living. Small protests have been reported in areas where local officials have attempted to rein in private trading – and such protests could snowball. That could be a central factor in how durable any successor regime proves to be.
It is, of course, difficult to assess what preparations have been made in Washington, Beijing and Seoul for a succession crisis in North Korea, because governments do not often reveal details of their contingency planning. But the picture painted by analysts is a gloomy one. While South Korea is certain to have spent decades planning for this eventuality, Dr Petrov points out that they face the serious problems of a lack of a plausible opposition to the North Korean regime and no convincing candidate for leader either inside or outside the country. (See the full text here…)