Kim Jong Il Is Dead; What's Next for North Korea?

"We should be thinking less about the transition of North Korean power, and more about the worldview that Kim and his potential successors have in common."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has, according to the same Pyongyang government that's for a decade-and-a-half variously and emphatically testified to his superhumanity, died. Three years ago, in the fall of 2008, after reports emerged that Kim might recently have suffered a stroke, Atlantic contributing editor B.R. Myers weighed in amid the cresting global speculation about what will eventually happen in North Korea after its Dear Leader's death. Among the points Myers emphasizes are the imperative that any new leadership is seen as reposing in a single, heroic successor, versus a collective (though Myers was not convinced this figure would come from Kim's family; this was before the anointing of Kim Jong Un), and the strong likelihood that any transition will be accompanied by a jacking-up of tensions with the United States:

We should thus beware of assuming that the transition of power there will follow staid Soviet precedents. Kim Jong Il's own takeover after his father's death in 1994 did not exactly go smoothly, though the official media had been working up to it since the early 1970s. He inexplicably lay low for the first few months while his grieving country slid into chaos and famine. Relations between Washington and Pyongyang were improving at the time; the Agreed Framework had just been signed, and the Clinton Administration was sending energy aid. But Kim Jong Il knew that—as Burke once said of revolutionary France—America's friendship would be more dangerous than its enmity. With his economy in ruin, he had to continue the official tradition of demonizing the U.S. or else acknowledge his own irrelevance. After all, if Koreans should work with the Yankees, why not do it under Seoul's rule, and go to bed on a full stomach? So when Kim finally fully emerged into the public eye in 1995, it was as a "military first" leader, a man so busy protecting the country from the American threat that he would have no time for economic matters.    

... One of the official culture's most sacred tenets is that the race needs a strong single leader, a "brain of the national organism," to use a favored metaphor. (The imagery is straight out of fascist Japan.) Besides, the regime would never have lasted this long if not for the deep emotional bond that North Koreans feel to the Kims. It is hard to imagine a group of wizened generals or party officials enjoying the public support this regime needs to survive. With a rival state thriving next door, North Korea must be led—charismatically, inspiringly led, with all the power of nationalist myth—and not merely managed.

The Dear Leader's death will elicit much the same sort of hysteria that followed his father's passing. The wails will derive less from genuine grief than from fear and uncertainty, just as many South Koreans wept after Park Chung Hee's assassination simply because they could not imagine national life without him. Whoever takes over, whether he is of Kim's family or not, must at least be seen as bearing Kim's seal of approval. Should the Dear Leader fail to anoint a successor in his lifetime, the regime will just have to pretend that he did; various statements to that effect will be faked up and put into print. Stalin resorted to similar deceptions to legitimize his own rule.

This will not be all. As happened in 1994, the propaganda apparatus must play on the masses' xenophobia in order to rally them around the new leader. In all likelihood, the regime will sharply ratchet up the level of tension with Washington, the better to tout the inevitable American plea for negotiations as a waving of the white flag. (Washington's eschewal of a military solution to the nuclear standoff is always mocked in the North as proof of Yankee cowardice.) But we can expect plenty of provocations even if Kim Jong Il stays alive; a "military first" leader who is no longer fit to visit army bases or review parades has to find other, more dangerous ways of conveying strength and toughness. In short, we should be thinking less about the transition of North Korean power, and more about the worldview that Kim and all his potential successors have in common.

Read the full story here.

Also from The Atlantic's archives:

  • When North Korea Falls (Robert Kaplan October 2006) The furor over Kim Jong Il's missile tests and nuclear brinksmanship obscures the real threat: the prospect of North Korea's catastrophic collapse. How the regime ends could determine the balance of power in Asia for decades. The likely winner? China.
  • North Korea: The War Game (Scott Stossel, July/August 2005) Dealing with North Korea could make Iraq look like child's playand the longer we wait, the harder it will get. That's the message of a Pentagon-style war game involving some of this country's most prominent foreign-policy strategists.
  • I Was Kim Jong Il's Cook (Kenji Fujimoto, January/February 2004) True stories from the Dear Leader's onetime chef
  • Mother of All Mothers (B.R. Myers, September 2004) The Leadership Secrets of Kim Jong Il
  • After Kim Jong Il (Terence Henry, May 2005) In which it is noted that though Kim Jong Un is a dark horse, Kim Jong Il's former sushi chef has said that he is the most favored of the three sons, because of his striking resemblance to his father.