By Duyeon Kim
North Korea’s official media today announced the death of its leader Kim Jong-il. While the consequences of his death are difficult to predict at this early stage, immediate chaos and turmoil on the ground appears unlikely. The North has been preparing for this day since Kim Jong-il’s stroke in 2008 and the naming of his son Kim Jong-un as successor last year. The next leader is technically already in place. While details of the next leadership structure are uncertain, though a collective leadership is possible, a relatively stable situation and transition is expected in the near term.
The international community should remain calm, cautious and patient while preparing for unexpected scenarios, but it is important to refrain from aggravating the North at this time. Close consultations among the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and Russia are important to ensure stability in the region during the leadership transition and prevent possible miscalculations.
One variable to keep an eye on is the handling of the transition by the new and old ruling elite and the possibility of a power struggle, though this scenario appears unlikely immediately. It remains to be seen if and how Kim Jong-un will bring about unity and cohesion among the various factions of the regime, and whether the young Kim will receive the loyalty and support critical for a leader. It is also unclear how the next leadership will manage relations with China.
Provocations have always been an integral part of North Korean tactics unleashed depending on circumstance and timing. If the new leader determines he must display strength to win the support of the North’s military and elite, another round of provocations cannot be ruled out in the future, especially with celebrations in 2012 aimed at opening the doors to becoming a “strong and prosperous nation.”
An immediate uprising by the North Korean populace as witnessed with the Arab Spring appears unlikely. There have been reports of discontent among North Koreans, but they do not have the same types of communications methods as the outside world and they would need someone prominent to lead such an uprising. However, the possibility of a coup d’état at some point remains uncertain.
Nuclear talks will likely be put on hold for the time being, particularly the U.S.-North Korea bilateral that was slated for this week, as the North will be in a period of mourning at least until December 29th. When the North’s founder Kim Il-sung died in 1994, U.S.-North Korea talks were halted for three months.
Still, the U.S. and its allies should remain open to continue engagement with the North as seen in recent weeks.
A change in North Korea’s leadership does not necessarily mean a major change in key policies, particularly the regime’s nuclear policy. Kim Jong-un is likely to implement his father’s policies without major changes in the near term. Since Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs are perceived to be the crux of the regime’s survival, it seems unlikely they will readily abandon their nuclear stockpiles. This means Kim Jong-il’s death may not change the key sticking points in six-way nuclear talks.