All wait with bated breath for a post-Kim Jong-il world

Kim Jong-il

By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

In the early 1990s, when North Korea opened its borders a tiny bit to Americans, Seong Suk Kim, also known as Joan, sought the opportunity to visit her siblings — two brothers — and their children, Kim’s nieces and nephews, whom she had never met.

During the Korean War, Kim and about half of her family escaped to the south. The rest were left behind. Kim hadn’t seen her siblings since the late 1940s.

Kim left behind her eldest sister, but unfortunately, this sister passed away before Kim made it back to North Korea.

“[During their reunion, my mom and her brothers] spent a few days together, talking a lot,” said Rep. Cindy Ryu (D) of the 32nd legislative district — Kim’s daughter. “They heard a lot, realized a lot — the difference between life in South Korea and North Korea, and North Korea and the United States.”

It was a pivotal trip for Kim. Both of her brothers have since passed away.

Kim Jong-il’s death

Kim Jong-il, leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), died of a heart attack on the morning of Dec. 17. He was 69, and news of his death was reported two days later on Dec. 19 (Dec. 18 in the United States) by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA, North Korea’s state news organization). Kim Jong-il’s funeral is scheduled for Dec. 28 in Pyongyang.

According to KCNA, Kim Jong-il had “received medical treatment for his cardiac and cerebrovascular diseases for a long period. He suffered an advanced acute myocardial infarction, complicated with a serious heart shock, while traveling by train. … Every possible first aid measure was taken immediately, but he passed away at 08:30 hours on 17 December. An autopsy on 18 December fully confirmed the diagnosis of his diseases.”

Even after a 17-year rule, with the last few plagued with rumors of Kim Jong-il’s deteriorating health, the news of his death surprised many worldwide. Asia’s stock markets fell that day. South Korea’s military was immediately put on alert after the announcement, wary of destabilization in the region. The South Korean government, which remains technically at war with North Korea, urged its people to “go about their usual economic activities,” on Dec. 19, according to BBC News. South Korea is also home to about 28,000 U.S. troops.

At midnight on Dec. 19, President Barack Obama spoke with Republic of Korea (South Korea) President Lee Myung-bak. According to the White House Office of Communications, Obama reaffirmed the United States’ strong commitment to the stability of the Korean Peninsula and the security of its close ally, South Korea.

The two leaders agreed to stay in close touch as the situation develops and agreed they would direct their national security teams to continue close coordination.


Kim Jong-un is the third and youngest son of Kim Jong-il. Only about 27 or 28 years old, he has been viewed as the successor to Kim Jong-il since late 2010, when his father began grooming him.

However, Kim Jong-un has not had the decades of tutelage under his father that Kim Jong-il benefited from under Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who founded North Korea in 1948.

“[Kim Jong-il’s] death came unexpectedly — most of us assumed he would live another couple of years,” Clark W. Sorensen wrote in an e-mail. Sorensen is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Korean Studies at the University of Washington. “That means the succession of his third son, Kim Jong-un, had not yet been fully implemented. … He was officially nominated successor at the Party Delegates Conference last year and is now being called the ‘glorious successor’ — widaehan kyesungja.”

Experts expect that Kim Jong-un will be under the guardianship of his only aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, a general, and her husband, Jang Song-thaek, who is seen as North Korea’s second-in-command leader.

A major concern that some have is whether power plays will be made by Kim Jong-il’s other sons or by generals to usurp the young and inexperienced new leader, which could lead to political instability. Another concern is whether the new regime will take military action to warn the United States and South Korea not to meddle in the transition in leadership. North Korea is believed to have nuclear weapons.

While some experts say there is a good chance of political instability, others believe that, in the short term, things will stay relatively unchanged.

“Most people will have a vested interest in a smooth succession,” Sorensen wrote. “I don’t expect a military coup or anything like that because the military — while highly favored — is thoroughly penetrated by the Party and the security apparatus under the control of the political center. The most likely scenario is that Kim Jong-un will initially be a weak leader under the tutelage of his aunt and uncle for a couple of years, while he tries to consolidate power.”

“During this period, I would not expect big new initiatives like denuclearization or economic reform,” Sorensen continued, “though it is possible that the North Korean leadership may want to cause a little external tension to help rally the people around the new leader — say, missile tests? What happens after that depends on Kim’s ability to consolidate his power and the ambitions of those around him.”

An uncertain future

“I am hoping that, in the next few days and weeks, peace prevails,” said Ryu. “I do have cousins in North Korea, and on a really personal level, peace is my ultimate wish. … Hopefully, this change is an opportunity for unification at some level, even if we end up with two separate governments. Some sort of open border would be wonderful, especially since the North Koreans do need additional food.”

Shortly after Kim Jong-il came to power in 1994, the North Korean economy was on the verge of collapse. The government responded with economic reforms, which were ill-conceived. That and poor harvests caused a severe famine that left an estimated 3.5 million people dead.

As of 2011, famine continues to be a problem in North Korea. It does get external food aid from countries like China, Pakistan, Japan, the United States, and South Korea.

Whereas South Korea, whose people are ethnically the same as North Koreans, has a strong economy today as the north suffers, the situation was reversed right after the Korean War, with South Korea being one of the poorest countries in Asia.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, North Korea was richer than South Korea,” said Ryu. “The north was much more stable, while South Korea had been just bombed out during the Korean War. So a lot of the men went overseas to work. My dad became a migrant worker. He left Korea in 1964. We followed him in 1967. A lot of us Koreans left South Korea because we were making a go of it. … We ultimately fulfilled the American Dream and I, as part of that family, I totally get why that opportunity is precious and necessary. My cousins in North Korea don’t have that opportunity. I’d love for them to have choices in life — where they can live, how they can live — some day.” (end)

Stacy Nguyen can be reached at

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