SEOUL – There was a time, not long after the Cold War’s end, when almost everyone assumed that North Korea would soon collapse. The sudden death in 1994 of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the tyrannical, economically disastrous North Korean experiment, reinforced this belief. That was then.
Today, no one can credibly say that North Korea’s dynastic regime, now led by “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, a son of the late “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, is certain to fall. From insistence that the end of the Kim dynasty was approaching, consensus is emerging on the continued existence of their regime.
Immediately after the stroke that killed his father at an exclusive summer resort villa on a remote mountain, Kim Jong-il consolidated political power by concentrating it in the hands of a very few diehard loyalists – and jailing, torturing, and killing anyone he viewed as a political opponent.
Nevertheless, despite his long tenure, the Dear Leader’s hold on power sometimes has been threatened by a small group of dissidents. And now that poor health has forced him to prepare to hand power to his third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un (the so-called “Young General”), opposition has become more visible.
On April 22, 2004, a train explosion at Ryongchon killed 160 people and injured 1,300. Many believe that it was an attempt to assassinate Kim, whose custom-built train passed through Ryongchon a few hours before the blast.
Since then, South Korean intelligence institutions have been assessing Kim Jong-il’s ability to organize an orderly dynastic succession. In particular, they have been monitoring the body count of senior North Korean officials who have suddenly retired, disappeared, or died in automobile accidents.
Indeed, the number of recent changes in the North Korean hierarchy strongly suggests serious domestic opposition to the continuance of Kim’s misbegotten rule. Kim Il-chol, 80, an admiral and vice-minister for the armed forces, was removed from his post in May. He was sent into retirement supposedly because of his advanced age, but there are even older figures in North Korea’s gerontocracy.
In addition, Pak Nam-gi, the senior finance ministry official considered responsible for North Korea’s botched issuance of a new currency last year, has disappeared, and Kim Yong-il, North Korea’s prime minister, was fired on June 7. Ri Je-gang, a senior Workers’ Party director, was killed in a bizarre car crash on June 2.
The most common explanation for all of these changes is that Kim is circling the wagons around himself and the Young General. A disciplined succession plan is needed because Kim is 68 and in bad health (and thus unlikely to still be holding power in 2012, the year he targeted for North Korea to become a “Strong and Prosperous Country”).
In the meantime, the armed forces appear to remain loyal to Kim, willing to carry out his orders even at the risk of bringing the country to the brink of war, such as by sinking the South Korean naval ship Cheonan in March and warning of “powerful nuclear deterrence” against joint South Korean and American military drills.
While the United Nations Security Council debates how to reprimand North Korea for the attack on the Cheonan, few people in South Korea believe that any punishment will deter Kim or shorten the life of his regime. Moreover, from the beginning South Korea had little faith in the UN even trying to act, due to China’s veto in the Security Council. Indeed, China offered South Korea a veiled warning that it “should not sweat the small stuff,” implying that the unprovoked killing of 46 South Korean sailors is a petty matter, and certainly not one that will cause China to rethink its alliance with North Korea.
North Korea’s unpredictability and China’s cynical irresponsibility appear to be boxing in South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s conservative government. Lee must not only calculate how tough to be with North Korea in response to the death of the Cheonan sailors, but also find a way to keep working with Kim Jong-il’s police state. He will most likely opt for a tactical retreat in the confrontation. Instead of pushing for serious UN sanctions, Lee’s government will eventually, it seems, focus on reviving the six-party (South and North Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia) talks to end the North’s nuclear-weapons program.
There is no way to know what will happen in North Korea when Kim dies. But it is time for Asia’s powers to start thinking creatively and acting cooperatively to prevent a violent implosion. For now, South Korea will need to rely on lionhearted tolerance in its relations with the North, because there is simply no other viable option at hand.