South should do more to mend ties with North
Kim Jong-il’s death on Dec. 17 came as a total surprise because the North Korean leader appeared to have recovered from a stroke he suffered in August 2008. When he came back on the scene to attend a special session of the Supreme People’s Assembly to designate his son, Jong-un, as his successor, he looked pale, thin and weak.
Kim Jong-il travelled twice to China while still limping. As he looked to be getting better, he kept busy making frequent “field guidance” trips to military units, factories and farms across the country. He died at 69. His father, Kim Il-sung, died also of heart failure.
There was some speculation regarding the cause, time, and place of his death, in the wake of Pyongyang’s announcement that “Dear Leader Kim Jong-il died on his moving train on a field guidance trip.” The South Korean intelligence chief said that the train was not in motion at the time of his death.
However, that information neither refutes the thrust of the official announcement nor provides a different version of how Kim died. So far, there has been no indication of foul play from an internal power struggle, which some conservatives had wishfully anticipated.
Incredibly, the governments of South Korea, Japan, and the United States were in the dark on Kim’s death for two days. Now the attention of the world is being focused on how Kim’s death will play out in terms of stability and security on the Korean Peninsula. There is no sign of an imminent collapse or a violent eruption as the authorities in Pyongyang are choreographing the funeral of its late leader for political unity.
They held a state funeral for Kim Il-sung in 1994, and they are quite capable of doing it again this time. As the chief family mourner and successor to his father, Kim Jong-un was seen on television, looking proper and behaving himself in the right manner as he was greeting and leading his political elders and senior generals to pay tributes to the late DPRK leader.
The North Koreans have proven that their information control system is still watertight. No news of Kim’s death was leaked by anyone who had access to the information before the official announcement.
Many wondered whether the Chinese did not know about the news either. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that Pyongyang may have informed its allies in Beijing and even in Moscow of the news at least shortly prior to the announcement.
It appears that the elite of the DPRK ― including the relatives of Kim Jong-un, who was officially hailed as the “Great Successor,” would probably opt for a collective power system with Kim Jong-un on top and his uncle Jang Song-thaek, and the military generals supporting him to continue for the coming months and possibly years. The military has pledged its allegiance to the young successor, who does not seem to have enough training or experience.
Because the legitimacy of any new North Korean leadership would be based on the legacies of the ``juche’’ (self-reliance) ideology and the military-first policy as well as the Confucian belief system, the classic realism of a power struggle is less relevant to North Korea.
This point had been missed by Western analysts who wrote scenarios that an ambitious general or military group would stage a coup out of greed for power and even civil war might break out that would lead to an eventual collapse of North Korea.
We know little about Kim Jong-un other than that he went to school in Switzerland, and that he is like his father in personality and he would get angry if to lose in sports as observed by Kim Jong-il’s Japanese sushi chef, Genji Fujimoto.
From this information, some predicted he would turn out as a more reformative leader or, to the contrary, more ruthless and dangerous. The success or failure of Kim Jong-un’s leadership would depend on whether he can develop himself as a transformational leader to adapt to the international norm and to persuade prominent figures with whom he may have to share power and to change the people and the country for better.
Jong-un, the vice chairman of the party’s central military committee with the rank of four-star general, will probably assume a more authoritative title for the stature of the new leader. He inherits a broken economy that has left the people in deprivation. However, the state of North Korea is not as bad as that of the country Kim Jong-il inherited in 1994, soon after which hundreds of thousands of people died from starvation.
In the meantime, China has become a stronger supporter of North Korea. No external force is threatening to attack the North unlike during the first nuclear crisis or during the first term of the George W. Bush administration. China has clearly expressed its endorsement of new leadership under Kim Jong-un.
Washington and Seoul were caught off guard by the death of Kim Jong-il and its response reflected their concerns about the uncertainty of the transition. While hoping for a peaceful and stable transition and stressing the importance of regional peace, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States hopes for improved ties with the people of North Korea, expressing deep concerns with their well-being and offering prayers for them.
South Korea cautiously watches further developments in the North, hoping its new leadership would be more forthcoming and cooperative to resolve pending issues, including the Cheonan incident and the denuclearization dispute. South Korea avoided the mistake of the Kim Young-sam government’s prohibition on condolences by South Koreans for the death of Kim Il-sung, which caused a bitter division in the South and an angry reaction from the North. This time the Seoul government allowed people to send messages of condolence if they wished, banning them, however, from visiting the North for Kim Jong-il’s funeral.
If the prudent response from Seoul and Washington stays the course, Pyongyang under Kim Jong-un and his advisors would be less likely to test another long-range missile or a third nuclear bomb. For the improvement of inter-Korean relations, Seoul’s current response is not considered sufficient to bring change.
The writer is a visiting research professor at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and can be reached at email@example.com.