After Kim Jong-il

North Korea has once more been in the news, this time with the historic visit-cum-rescue operation headed by Bill Clinton to free two American journalists that had been held for four months. For a nation as isolated from the world at large politically and economically, it has held quite the attentive position of newsmaker the past few years due to its nuclear weapons program and hostile rhetoric to the US and other nations. All of these efforts are lead by its supreme leader, the authoritarian and eccentric Kim Jong-il.

What worries me is not necessarily their weapons arsenal, belligerent posturing, or the prime bargaining chip they were given to engage the West when these two journalists popped up on their side of the Tumen River but the possible scenarios that will play out in the country after the Kim Jong-il dies. We had similar worries about a post-Saddam Iraq before the war yet North Korea is far more cut-off from the world at large and has, if one can believe it, an even more strict authoritarian control of the populance, more resembling Turkmenbashi-era Turkmenistan than Iraq. Kim Jong-il is said to be a diabetic with other severe health problems and concerns were raised on the nation’s 60th anniversary that he may have had a stroke when he did not show up for the ceremony. It would be interesting to see how that was played out by the state media to the masses at the parades.

Many defectors from North Korea and journalists that have visited have mentioned the extremes of brainwashing and state control that occurs amongst the general population. Speakers in the bedrooms to wake everyone in the morning to the glorious sounds of Jong-il and a highly thorough, if eccentric, personality cult modeled on that created by his father Kim il-Sung. There is not known to be any sort of homegrown grassroots freedom or democratic movements and it’s highly unlikely that any agents from other countries have been able to aid any such groups in such subversive activities. It’s hard to believe but probably one can count at least two to three generations, maybe more under the domination, indoctrination schemes, and censorship of this regime. It is likely that those old enough to remember the Korean War and times before have passed away or will be departing soon with their memories of a pre-dictatorship government and nominal freedom. It is unlikely that those raised within the last twenty years have any concept of a North Korea different from the one that exists today, a North Korea that they are told is the best nation on earth, the others outside being decadent and dangerous. Extreme poverty and starvation problem belie those truths as well as the people who decide to attempt escape at the risk of death to leave the country. Not many try to leave paradise if it is truly such.

A North Korea of tomorrow, a post-Kim North Korea, could be a very unstable place, with the wobbling starting in a power struggle at the top that might become very public and dangerous later on. It is said that only recently Jong-il has started making small preparations of succession, with favored youngest son Kim Jong-un being said to be in line. His older brother Kim Jong-chul was thought to be under consideration after an incident traveling in Japan under a false identity. The eldest brother, Kim Jong-nam, is thought to currently reside in China and Macau.

An inter-family struggle could be one possible scenario as being a favorite then being dropped probably doesn’t go over well in the mind of the son of an authoritarian dictator. The military leadership will be one deciding factor in the succession arrangement given the weak plans currently and, depending on the favor curried by either of the resident sons, there could be a struggle within the ranks or even a grab for power amongst the military leadership themselves. Those leaders have benefited from North Korea’s main economy of black market goods and foreign counterfeiting and aren’t likely to want to give up the little chance to retain the power and money they have in the country for a new, untested leader. A fight between leaders with one of the largest armies in the world at their disposal is a very scary thought, especially if some are in position to have access to their nuclear weapons arsenal.

The nukes are the news and the big elephant in the room in any discussion of the nation’s future. What would happen to them in a post-Kim regime? Possible internal use or sold to the highest bidder in the murky market of international terrorists? It is the fearful scene that runs continually through the minds of those who fret over Pakistan’s stability and the safety of their nuclear weapons as well. Yet, the American government ostensibly has an operational procedure in place for entering the country and securing them if need be. Access to Pakistan, though difficult, is far easier than it would be to North Korea and our intelligence about their facilities far better.

We’ve already seen that with Kim there is a willingness to sell the secrets of nuclear power and instant death to other isolated actors on the world stage such as the connection being hinted at between North Korea and Burma’s newly revealed program. It will be a very dangerous time indeed if an opportunistic person during a regime change or instability in North Korea takes it upon themselves to make deals with other nasty juntas and dictators in other parts of the world, just as Pakistan helped North Korea in its operations.

These weapons are a contentious issue now but given the unpredictability and sheer speculation and guesses as to the internal power structure of the government makes a post-Kim North Korea as dangerous as the one that currently exists. Clinton’s visit and whatever backdoor talks might have occurred could be leading a way to a new round of talks in addressing not only the nuclear program questions but in opening the country to an engagement with the broader world to ease any type of plunge into anarchy or power struggles that may come out after Jong-il dies.

Further reading:

North Korea After Kim Jong-il (Businessweek)
Who Comes After North Korea’s Kim Jong-il (NPR) / Radio Transcipt
Imagining North Korea After Kim (Time)

Speculation on Burma – North Korea Ties:

Is there a Burma-North Korea-Iran nuclear conspiracy?
Burma-North Korea: Rumor and reality
Clinton Cites Concerns of Arms Aid to Myanmar
Burma and Nuclear Proliferation: Policies and Perceptions (pdf)

4 Comments

  1. Ian

    See my response to Clint’s “It’s probably because you suck” post. Your linking to the Burma-North Korea thing is a lot of what I mean. Repeatedly throughout the article it states “no reliable evidence” and “not able to corroborate reports”. Never thought I would see speculative fear-mongering here.

  2. Jordan M

    connection being hinted at between North Korea and Burma’s newly revealed program.

    Speculation on Burma – North Korea Ties:

    I don’t see any fearmongering here. Benefit of the doubt is given as to the connection b/w North Korea and Burma. My article is in discussion of a post-Kim North Korea and what that means for the US and its interests in Asia, which I think is a dangerous prospect in the realm of nuclear non-proliferation especially in a place that is desperately poor. The same concerns have been discussed by better informed people on Pakistan, which is a more immediate danger.

    My main worry would be a severe humanitarian crisis, the deaths of many, and the possibility for desperate party figures or generals to sell weapons technology to other countries and unbalance the power dynamics in places such as Southeast Asia. One thing we (as in the ‘world’) do not need is another nuclear arms race.

    I thought I had made clear by the second paragraph that this was purely a piece sorting through ideas of what a post-Kim North Korea could look like and the effects it could have on the world at large. If it was not clear, then the fault is mine. I see nothing wrong with taking a current situation and extrapolating from it possible scenarios in the future. If you want to see real fearmongering please watch Fox News or your local news instead.

  3. Ian

    Honestly, I didn’t read your whole post. I know that probably should keep me from commenting, but I felt that right off the bat it was wanton speculation so I skipped to the bottom to your links, clicked the first one under “speculation”, and that basically confirmed it. We heard all this nonsense about “When Saddam dies” and “When Castro dies” too. I think all those articles amounted to a heap of waste.

    “One thing we (as in the ‘world’) do not need is another nuclear arms race.”

    No, the one thing we (as in the ‘world’) don’t need is another Red Scare. Our government and public thought still have not recovered from the first. If you want to panic and fearmonger, please go to that hotair blog from Chris’s post last week.

  4. Jordan M

    Honestly, I didn’t read your whole post. I know that probably should keep me from commenting, but I felt that right off the bat it was wanton speculation so I skipped to the bottom to your links, clicked the first one under “speculation”, and that basically confirmed it. We heard all this nonsense about “When Saddam dies” and “When Castro dies” too. I think all those articles amounted to a heap of waste.

    Yes, it is speculation. What is wrong with speculation? Better scenario planning for when ‘Saddam died/was overthrown’ might have saved us some of the trouble when we stupidly made that occur. The Castro thing is also important to the US government, to citizens of this country, and even to people like me who are interested not only in international affairs but in visiting the countries that I discuss.

    “One thing we (as in the ‘world’) do not need is another nuclear arms race.”

    No, the one thing we (as in the ‘world’) don’t need is another Red Scare. Our government and public thought still have not recovered from the first.

    It is pretty obvious that the words ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ are dirty words in this country still but that has nothing to do with discussing what could possibly happen to unsecured material from unstable, poor nations abroad. I found it interesting that we had to send an ex-president to secure the release of two journalists in a nation that is hostile to US interests which started the thread of thinking on Kim.

    If you want to panic and fearmonger, please go to that hotair blog from Chris’s post last week.

    I’m not sure what blog you are referring to but you can always read the post and contribute something to the discussion rather than skipping it entirely and shooting off unfounded comments.