By William Tucker
North Korea’s official media outlet has reported that the nation’s leader, Kim Jong-il, has died at the age of 69. Jong-il has been in bad health recently and suffered a stroke in 2008. Although Kim Jong-il named his son, Kim Jong-Un, as his successor in September 2010, the younger Kim does not have any political or military experience. Making matters worse, North Korea is in the middle of a famine and has suffered a precipitous drop in population (estimated to have fallen from 28 million in 1992 to 21 million in 2005). International isolation as a result of strict adherence to Kim il-Sung’s ideology of Juche has further compounded these issues.
North Korea has had only one leadership transition in its history – it took three years – and it didn’t have anywhere near as many problems as the country is suffering now. Keep in mind that Kim Jong-il had two decades of political experience before taking control of the country after his father’s death and it still took him those three years to consolidate power. This does not bode well for an untested Kim Jong-Un unless he already managed, through his father’s work, to put the military firmly in his corner, not to mention the rest of the elites. Strangely, that is the wild card in all of this. The old guard that was around during the Korean War and helped Kim il-Sung found the country is dying off rapidly leaving the possibility that a political challenge could arise if they sense any weakness. Of course, there are many members of the military and the Korean Worker’s Party that are heavily invested in the current paradigm in North Korea meaning that the status quo may hold.
Watching the military will be the key. If anyone rises to challenge the Kim dynasty it will likely rise from the military and not the party. For more on this topic the recording of my webcast Across the DMZ: Revealing North Korea is below. As this situation develops I’ll provide updates and analysis.