Asia Society Associate Fellows Charles Armstrong and John Delury offer instant analysis on the death of Kim Jong Il and its implications for the region.
Kim Jong Il's death leaves North Korea's future open to question. After Kim suffered a stroke in 2008, the regime stepped up the succession process, plucking his third son Kim Jong Un out of obscurity and putting him in the spotlight as heir apparent. But three years is not much time to prepare the younger Kim for leadership. Kim Jong Il himself had been groomed for power for over two decades when his own father died in 1994, and oversaw a troubled and crisis-riven period of economic implosion, famine, and nuclear confrontation with the United States.
It seems likely that for now North Korea will have a collective caretaker leadership, perhaps headed by Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law Jang Song-taek, with Kim Jong Un as a figurehead. If and when Kim Jong Un consolidates his own power, it is not at all clear where he will take the country — toward opening or reform, or a continuing the hardline policies of his father. North Korea is entering a new era of uncertainty, with profound and unsettling implications for all the countries in the region.
North Korea is now making only the second political transition of its 60-plus-year history. And thus far, there is no evidence of near term political crisis or confusion as to the new pecking order; no sign of factional struggles, popular revolt, or systemic breakdown. All signs point to what the state media is saying, Kim Jong Un is the “outstanding leader of our party, army and people.”
The most important role for key players on the Peninsula — South Korea, the U.S. and China — is one that is easy, and political expedient, to overlook: the wisdom in re-opening or expanding channels with Pyongyang in the days, weeks and months to come. The more we know about the new leadership, the better we can respond. The downside of engagement is minimal, but the costs and risks of isolating North Korea at this point are steep.