Originally published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, September 2008
With reports and speculation running rampant on the whereabouts and health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il—from the possibility of his having suffered a stroke, to rumors that he's already dead—"Korea-watchers" are grappling with how to get to the bottom of what's really going on. The greatest reason for concern that we know of remains his absence at festivities this week to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). But how seriously should we take these concerns? Or, to put it more bluntly, should the world be alarmed?
While Kim did attend the more elaborate 50th and 55th anniversary celebrations in years past, such an absence is not completely without precedent. In fact, Kim Jong Il is known for having a history of such disappearances since taking the reins of power in 1994, after the death of his father. Many of these previous disappearances were also accompanied by reports of ill health. His last public appearance, as reported by the North Korean press, was about one month ago.
This is not to say that the current reports are without merit. Kim is now 66 years old and is known to suffer from diabetes and heart problems. There are reports out of South Korea that he collapsed on August 22nd. We have also heard from other sources of a team of Chinese doctors being sent to North Korea to treat a "senior-level North Korean official." So what to make of the current situation?
This brings us to the big "what if" question. What if Kim Jong Il is incapacitated or worse? What will happen domestically, to relations on the Korean Peninsula and further abroad?
In 1994, when his father died suddenly, there was a relatively clear line of succession pointed directly at Kim Jong Il. As early as the 1960s, Kim began to rise through the ranks of the Korean Workers' Party, while also playing a role in the Party Central Committee. By the 1980s, he held senior positions in the Politburo, the Military Commission, and the party Secretariat. At this time, Kim also began to be referred to as the "Dear Leader" not to be confused with his father, Kim Il Sung, the "Great Leader." Finally, in 1991, he was named the supreme commander of the North Korean armed forces. So upon his father's death it was somewhat natural that he took over the titles of General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea and Chairman of the National Defense Commission.
Such is not the case today. While Kim Jong Il has three sons, none seems to be a clear frontrunner to take over from him. If not one of his sons, most speculation seems to focus on the military as playing a leading role in governing North Korea. Generally speaking, with no clear line of succession in place, the potential instability that could result presents a somewhat disconcerting situation in the short-term, should Kim Jong Il suddenly die.
Assuming stability would eventually prevail (and this is a big assumption), no matter who takes over in such a situation there is little likelihood of a major change in North Korea's policies, both on the domestic and international fronts. As the leaders continue to protect the interests of the party, we would expect to see more of the same on the domestic policy front. Similarly, North Korea's spotty record of international interaction would likely continue.
But what about that little likelihood of a change? Is it possible that Kim Jong Il could be replaced by a more moderate leader or faction within the party—a leadership that might move North Korea in the direction of reform and opening taken in China 30 years ago? The possibility, however small, does exist. If North Korea moved in such a direction there would likely be tremendous support from South Korea, China (which has been prodding North Korea to move in this direction for some time), Japan, and even the United States, amongst other countries in the region. In essence, a whole new world of opportunities would open to North Korea and its people.
But let us not put the cart before the horse. There are still many questions left unanswered by the current situation and there will be plenty of time to speculate about the future of North Korea and the Korean Peninsula as more answers and information become available. Until that time we are all left to ponder…where in the world is Kim Jong Il?
Michael G. Kulma is the Director of Policy Programs at Asia Society.