Kim Jong Il's death: reactions and analyses

Updated On: Dec 20, 2011

North Korea made preparations for leader Kim Jong Il’s funeral while the country’s official media on Tuesday heaped accolades his son Kim Jong Un, suggesting the leadership transition was under way. Analysts and officials weighed in on the implications, with some fearing the consequences of a potentially destabilising power struggle and others expressing hope for renewed engagement.

Mr. Kim's death and the possibility of a power struggle in a nuclear-armed and erratic country has heightened tensions in the region. South Korea's military has been put on high alert, and US President Barack Obama agreed over the phone with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to closely observe developments. Japan's government also said it was being watchful for any "unexpected developments."

Mr. Kim’s death could hamper efforts by the US and others to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. US officials said the Obama administration may delay decisions on nuclear re-engagement and food aid to North Korea

According to a South Korean official speaking on condition of anonymity, North Korea conducted at least one short-range missile test Monday, but South Korea's military sees it as part of a scheduled routine drill rather than an act of aggression.

Report: NKorea media laud son, nation grieves Kim Jong Il (Associated Press, 20 Dec 2011)

US response cautious

The US has been acting cautiously to the new development, consulting with allies and emphasising stability. Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said, “I think right now the North Koreans are themselves going to go into a period of national mourning… We need to see where they are and where they go as they move through their transition period.” A senior Pentagon official reaffirmed that the ballistic missile test had been set in advance of the leader’s death, and that the missiles that were fired were not aimed at any target.

Defence Secretary Leon Panetta agreed with his South Korean counterpart "that it was critical to remain prudent with respect to all matters related to our security posture there."

Given the lack of American intelligence on the leadership in Pyongyang, the top priority for the United States now would be to keep communication lines open to Seoul to ensure that it continues to remain calm, officials said.

Victor Cha, a senior adviser on Asian affairs in the Bush administration called it a “delicate balance.” “You want to stay close to the South Korean allies but also prevent them from doing something rash. The thing you worry about most in this situation is miscalculation,” he said.

China expresses condolences

China on Monday offered its "deep condolences" to North Korea the death of Kim Jong Il. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement, "We are shocked to learn that DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name) top leader comrade Kim Jong Il passed away and we hereby express our deep condolences on his demise and send sincere regards to the DPRK people."

He added, "We believe the DPRK people will definitely be able to turn their sorrow into strength and remain united as one to continuously push forward the socialist cause of the DPRK… China and the DPRK will work together to continue to make positive contributions to consolidating and developing… friendship between the two sides and maintaining peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the region."

The Obama administration will also have to engage China to discuss handling North Korea in transition. Analysts say that is a tough task since the Chinese have avoided all discussion of this subject while Kim Jong Il was alive, to avoid giving any impression that they were collaborating with foreign powers to work against him.

“[The Chinese] now face a choice,” Mr. Cha said. “If we see some sort of instability in North Korea, are they going to work with us? Or are they going to deflect again?”

President Obama also took an aggressive stance in his recent tour of Asia, in which he announced a greater military presence in Asia, as well as a diplomatic overture to Myanmar. China has accused the US of pushing forth a containment policy against it.

Others believe China would not allow the situation to destabilise so much that it threatens its own interests in the region, especially as it faces its own leadership transition next year. "China… will keep North Korea on a short leash," Barry Bosworth, a global economics expert at the Brookings Institution, commented. He added that, as a result, North Korea will not "go off the reservation too much. [China] won't tolerate that."

Analysis: New Weight on U.S.-South Korea Relations (New York Times, 19 Dec 2011)

Report: China expresses condolences on Kim's death (China Daily, 19 Dec 2011)

Analysis: Kim Jong Il's death could upset regional economy in Asia (Los Angeles Times, 19 Dec 2011)

Power transition, nuclear weapons add to uncertainty

Analysts have voiced fears of a destabilising power struggle, with some warning that the next few days could be a critical turning point for North Korea. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has made several high-profile visits to North Korea, commented, "The situation could become extremely volatile. What the North Korean military does in the next 24-48 hours will be decisive."

For now, signs are surfacing that the North Korean military and ruling elite is supporting the transfer of power to Kim Jong Un. Within hours of Kim Jong Il’s death, North Korea’s ruling Workers Party called on the nation to unite “under the leadership of our comrade Kim Jong-un.” Kim Jong Un was also named head of the committee that will oversee his father’s funeral on 28 December, a move that some analysts interpreted as evidence that the transfer of power to the son was proceeding smoothly, at least in the first days.

John Delury, a professor of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, commented that “The first test of the new leadership will be its handling of the death itself.”

Some analysts said Kim Jong Il had used the three years after his stroke in 2008 to successfully build up support for this untested son, who bears a resemblance to his grandfather. “Kim Jong-il used the years after his stroke to build a consensus among the elite that his son would be the face of North Korea after he was gone,” said Kim Yeon-su, a professor of North Korean studies at the National Defense University in Seoul.

But the situation after the funeral is highly uncertain. While Kim Jong Il had ten years to build a support base between being named as successor and actually assuming power, Kim Jong Un has had only one to three years to do so.

Masao Okonogi, a specialist on North Korea at Keio University in Tokyo, said that during the new leader’s first few years, North Korea under Kim Jong Un would likely shy away from confrontation with the US and its allies, as Kim Jong Il did after the death of Kim Il Sung. “Look for Kim Jong-un to make some offer, like to restart the Six-Party talks… He’ll need to reduce tensions with the United States in order to buy time,” Mr. Okonogi said.

Other analysts also expressed hope that a change of generation might bring a re-evaluation of the North’s isolation. They say that North Korean officials are visiting neighbouring China to see the achievements of its economic liberalisation under an authoritarian regime. Recent visitors to North Korea also say there are signs of growing commercial links with China.

Conversely, a power struggle could push North Korea to take hostile action against the South, causing the situation to rapidly escalate. President Lee has vowed to oppose any North Korean provocation with swift and proportionate counter strikes, especially after last year’s sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on the North as well as the North’s shelling of a South Korean border island.

Paul Stares, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said there was “some evidence that Kim Jong Un may have been involved at some level in the decision to attack the South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, as well as he may have also been involved in the shelling of the island in the West Sea.” He added, “There is obviously concern that, as part of the transition process, that we may see provocations of this kind — again, designed to enhance his leadership and image as a strong leader in North Korea.”

The North’s nuclear capabilities also weigh in heavily on North Korea experts. White House spokesman Jay Carney has said that the US doesn't have "any additional concerns beyond the ones that we have long had with North Korea's approach to nuclear issues." But others say that the country lacks many of the safeguards routinely used by nuclear states to prevent unauthorised or accidental deployment of the weapons.

It is also unclear whether the supreme leader or other officials control the devices and where the devices are kept. Nuclear experts believe that North Korea has one or two dozen nuclear devices, but there is no conclusive evidence that the country has turned its nuclear devices into operational warheads. One of the country's missiles, the Taepodong-2, has a range capable of reaching Australia or Alaska, according to the International Crisis Group.

Analysis: New Weight on U.S.-South Korea Relations (New York Times, 19 Dec 2011)

Report: NKorea media laud son, nation grieves Kim Jong Il (Associated Press, 20 Dec 2011)

Analysis: Young Heir Faces Uncertain Transition in North Korea (New York Times, 19 Dec 2011)

Analysis: Pyongyang's Neighbors Worry Over Nuclear Arms (Wall Street Journal, 20 Dec 2011)

Opportunity for new engagement seen

Others see a window of opportunity. China in particular has expressed hope that leadership transition might offer an opportunity for North Korea to reform its dysfunctional economic system.

Zhu Feng, an international studies professor at Peking University, said the power transition might pressure the new leader to implement reforms.

Shi Yuanhua, director of the Korean Studies Center at Fudan University in Shanghai, was optimistic for North Korea’s future. “Compared to his father, Kim Jong Un has more motivation to reform, considering his background abroad and his age… But if the US, Japan and South Korea are still waiting for North Korea to collapse one day, then the opening and reform process will be more difficult,” he said.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged North Korea’s government to bring their country out of isolation and return to the six-party nuclear disarmament talks. “We hope that their new leadership will recognize that engagement with the international community offers the best prospect of improving the lives of ordinary North Korean people,” Mr. Hague said in a statement.

Foreign Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd said Kim Jong Il’s death “presents an opportunity for the North Korean regime, the new leadership of the new regime, to engage fully with the international community on the critical questions of how to feed their people, how to open their economy and, more broadly, how to deal with the long-standing problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday the US hopes North Korea will follow the "path of peace" and called on the country to work with the international community and improve relations with its neighbours.

She said, "It is our hope that the new leadership of the DPRK will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by honouring North Korea's commitments, improving relations with its neighbours, and respecting the rights of its people… The United States stands ready to help the North Korean people and urges the new leadership to work with the international community to usher in a new era of peace, prosperity and lasting security on the Korean Peninsula."

Report: With Kim Jong Il’s death, some see window for change in North Korea (Washington Post, 19 Dec 2011)

Report: U.S. hopes N.Korea will follow the "path of peace" (Reuters, 19 Dec 2011)

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