Kim Jong-Il is dead, but no change in sight for the Hermit Kingdom
The enigmatic North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, the last Stalinist-dictator of the 21st century who used terror to preserve his power inside the Hermit Kingdom and his nuclear weapons to menace his neighbors, has died.
Report of Kim's death sent shockwaves through Asian capitals and reverberated around the world. The sudden departure of the Dear Leader has inspired worries and anxiety and plunged the world leaders and military strategists into a state of uncertainty.
"The most likely scenario for regime collapse has been the sudden death of Kim Jong-Il. We are now in that scenario," says Victor Cha, the new U.S. ambassador to Seoul. "Death of Kim Jong-Il leaves power vacuum in North Korea," a Washington Post editorial warns, "his death raises immediate questions about the future-and the stability-of perhaps the world's most isolated state, which for six decades has held its country together with the Kim family personality cult."
To make the matter worse, Kim Jong-Un, the youngest son of Kim Jong-Il and his anointed successor, has been depicted in U.S. intelligence assessments as "volatile," "sadistic," and "unpredictable." And some South Korean experts see the 28-year-old inheritor of the Kim Dynasty as facing opposition from senior North Korean officials and generals and his inexperience could make him vulnerable to power struggles.
The world, however, is unlikely to witness the sudden collapse of the Kim Dynasty or a post-Gaddafi style regime change in Pyongyang anytime soon.
Kim Jong-Il took power after the death of his father, Kim Il-Sung, in July 1994. Under Kim Jong-Il's rule, North Korea fell into abject poverty. Kim the Son, however, continued to command great attention and relevance in the world by accomplishing an important milestone that his father had dreamed about: Pyongyang tested two nuclear devices in 2006 and again in 2009. The nuclear weapons, along with a nuclear infrastructure capable of producing both weapons-grade plutonium and enriched uranium and a variety of long-range ballistic missiles that Kim Jong-Il developed, now are giving the isolated North Korea a powerful protection against an outside invasion.
So Kim's most important legacy for his successor is, as Kenneth Waltz of UC-Berkeley puts it, "a dictator who wants to hold on to power should also hold onto his nuclear weapons. Conventional weapons have time and again shown themselves to be unreliable deterrents when state survival is in question. Nuclear weapons have never failed to deter other states-no matter how powerful those states may be. The strong have been able to deter the strong, but the weak can also deter the strong."
Another legacy that Kim Jong-Il left for his son is that in order to avoid being overthrown, a dictator must never gamble on loosening up political control and cooperating with the outside world. The only way to hold on to an autocratic rule, Kim Jong-Il held, was to make an already repressive regime more repressive. "One could not preside over a system as cruel as North Korea's," the former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote after her meeting with Kim Jong-Il in 2000, "without being cruel oneself."
And the hazards of the power transition in Pyongyang should not be exaggerated. Not only has Kim Jong-Il done everything he could in the last two years of his life to groom Kim Jong-Un to ensure continuity, but what's perhaps more important, instead of challenging the younger Kim, North Korea's generals and party leaders see every incentive to sustain the Kim family's cult of personality and make the younger Kim a success, since their own power and survival depends on it.
Then there is China. The Kim Dynasty cannot survive without China. As soon as Kim Jong-Il's death was announced, Beijing has once again brought back its "lips and teeth" relations with Pyongyang and made clear that it will continue to support Pyongyang regime and reconsolidate its "blood-cemented" alliance with Kim the Third. "China is unlikely to alter a longstanding policy of supporting North Korea. As Pyongyang's only military ally, Beijing is expected to offer its strong backing to Kim Jong-Un to minimize the risk of a leadership struggle," Wall Street Journal correspondent Jeremy Page reports from Beijing, "Chinese leaders, concerned that the younger Kim has had less than two years to prepare for the succession, may also offer additional economic assistance to boost his standing."
In post-Kim Jong-Il North Korea, "The Son Still Rises," and the world will not see the end of the Kim Dynasty for the foreseeable future.
Dr. Xiaoxiong Yi is the Director of Marietta College's China Program.