Kim Jong Il, dictatorial ruler of the hermit kingdom of North Korea, has assumed room temperature. A tearful announcer on the NK news service announced it last night. The 69 year old ruler will be replaced by his 3rd son, Kim Jong un – or at least that’s the announced plan.
There is speculation as to whether or not that will be the final outcome. Kim Jong un will only be the third leader (all from the same family) that NK has had in its relatively brief history. General Thurman, the US commander of troops in South Korea summed the situation up pretty well in his confirmation hearing in June where he warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that the older Kim’s death could increase the military threat on the peninsula, since "Kim Jong-un’s youth and inexperience increase the likelihood of miscalculation, as does the imperative for him to establish credibility with the military hardliners he needs to support succession. These factors make him less predictable in the near-term."
As if to emphasize that point, we have this:
North Korea test-fired a short-range missile off its east coast on Monday, the same day it announced the death of leader Kim Jong-Il, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said.
The agency quoted an unnamed government official as saying the missile launch was unrelated to the announcement that Kim had died Saturday of a heart attack.
Naturally, anyone who has observed North Korea knows that nothing like that is “unrelated”. Everything is tightly controlled and done for a purpose. And the missile firing is not an “unrelated” incident.
This will be a situation to watch closely. The military is a very powerful faction in NK. And you have to figure there are those within its upper hierarchy that would like to see a change in leadership, most likely to an even harder line that now. Dangerous times on the Korean peninsula as this leadership position plays out.
The answer to that question is “probably.” That’s a step up from “possibly.” But in the Hermit Kingdom, nothing is really ever certain.
The recent late night announcement by Kim Jong-Il of the promotion of his third son, Kim Jong-un to the rank of general in the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) has removed any lingering doubt as to which of his sons is his chosen successor. The promotion repeats a pattern from the past. Kim Jong-Il was also promoted to a high post in the NKPA in 1991 by his father, Kim Il Sung, to establish his future claim to the top position in the country.
According to Dr. John Ishiyama, a Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas and expert on North Korea, the sudden rush to establish his third son as his legitimate and chosen heir to power has been accelerated by Kim Jong Il’s deteriorating health.
But, says Ishiyama, there are some other promotions, which have taken place, which are also important to understand and indicate how any succession in the near future might be handled. Kim Jong-un is in his late 20s and is virtually untried, having had little or no experience to date within North Korea’s power structure. If Kim Jong-Il were to die soon, he’d be left to fend pretty much for himself.
However Kim Jong-Il has now carefully prepared the way for a sort of “regency” if should die unexpectedly. Kim Jong-un’s consort is a visible part of the top leadership, and in the position of Kim Jong Il’s personal secretary for years, is thought to wield exceptional power. Additionally, Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Soong-taek, considered by some to be an opposition figure, has been reconciled with the family and promoted to the vice-chairmanship of the National Defense Council, solidifying his position in the power structure. Kim Kyon-hui, Jong-un’s aunt and Soong-taek’s wife, is a 4 star general in the NKPA as well as holding a powerful position within the ruling Korean Workers Party.
All of that suggests that the consort, aunt and uncle will form a power clique that will be the actual “power behind the throne”, until Kim Jong-un is deemed to be prepared to take the reins of power himself.
In the meantime, and unlike the careful grooming Kim Jong Il got from his father, Kim Jong-un will be set upon a relative crash course to learn what is necessary for him to survive and thrive in the leadership role his father will leave him. The recent promotion sets him on that path and the other promotions are designed to protect him and enable him to learn the levers of power there.
It won’t be an easy task by any means.
The totalitarian nature of the regime, the poor international standing of the nation, the sanctions imposed by other nations for its role in nuclear proliferation, another bad harvest and the subsequent rumors of starvation all combine to paint an even bleaker future for the country than present. All that can be realistically hoped for at the moment is that when the young Kim Jong-un does take power he will look outward with the aim of reform and rejoining the society of nations instead of looking further inward and remaining on the road to eventual catastrophic ruin.
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Kim Jong-Il is apparently not content with good old-fashioned saber rattling, and instead wants to push the envelope (or the button, as it were) a little further:
North Korea may fire a long-range ballistic missile toward Hawaii in early July, a Japanese news report said Thursday, as Russia and China urged the regime to return to international disarmament talks on its rogue nuclear program.
The missile, believed to be a Taepodong-2 with a range of up to 4,000 miles (6,500 kilometers), would be launched from North Korea’s Dongchang-ni site on the northwestern coast, said the Yomiuri daily, Japan’s top-selling newspaper. It cited an analysis by the Japanese Defense Ministry and intelligence gathered by U.S. reconnaissance satellites.
The missile launch could come between July 4 and 8, the paper said.
While the newspaper speculated the Taepodong-2 could fly over Japan and toward Hawaii, it said the missile would not be able to hit Hawaii’s main islands, which are about 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) from the Korean peninsula.
A spokesman for the Japanese Defense Ministry declined to comment on the report. South Korea’s Defense Ministry and the National Intelligence Service — the country’s main spy agency — said they could not confirm it.
If North Korea does carry out such a plan, it would be a most provocative act, bordering on a casus belli. Figuratively speaking, it would not be any different than the child’s game of swinging one’s arms within inches of one’s sibling while declaring “not touching!” In realpolitik terms, it is simply a threat.
Of course, the real question is, what do we do about it?
President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met in Washington on Tuesday for a landmark summit in which they agreed to build a regional and global “strategic alliance” to persuade North Korea to dismantle all its nuclear weapons. Obama declared North Korea a “grave threat” to the world and pledged that the new U.N. sanctions on the communist regime will be aggressively enforced.
In Seoul, Vice Unification Minister Hong Yang-ho told a forum Thursday that the North’s moves to strengthen its nuclear programs is “a very dangerous thing that can fundamentally change” the regional security environment. He said the South Korean government is bracing for “all possible scenarios” regarding the nuclear standoff.
In a rare move, leaders of Russia and China used their meetings in Moscow on Wednesday to pressure the North to return to the nuclear talks and expressed “serious concerns” about tension on the Korean peninsula.
The joint appeal appeared to be a signal that Moscow and Beijing are growing impatient with Pyongyang’s stubbornness. Northeastern China and Russia’s Far East both border North Korea, and Pyongyang’s unpredictable actions have raised concern in both countries.
After meetings at the Kremlin, Chinese President Hu Jintao joined Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in urging a peaceful resolution of the Korean standoff and the “swiftest renewal” of the now-frozen talks involving their countries as well as North and South Korea, Japan and the United States.
“Russia and China are ready to foster the lowering of tension in Northeast Asia and call for the continuation of efforts by all sides to resolve disagreements through peaceful means, through dialogue and consultations,” their statement said.
Keep in mind, as well, that North Korea need not tip anyone of those missiles with a nuclear warhead (which it does not yet have the capability to do) in order to pose a significant threat. Reportedly, the Stalinist regime is well-equipped with chemical weapons as well:
The independent International Crisis Group think tank, meanwhile, said the North’s massive stockpile of chemical weapons is no less serious a threat to the region than its nuclear arsenal.
It said the North is believed to have between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, phosgene, blood agents and sarin. These weapons can be delivered with ballistic missiles and long-range artillery and are “sufficient to inflict massive civilian casualties on South Korea.”
Although the nations involved have been ready to talk sternly about “grave threats” and to urge further negotiations to quell the tensions, Kim Jong-Il is notably unimpressed. Rather than seeking to retard the North Korean leader’s ambitions, everyone seems insistent upon being cautions in order to avoid “provoking” Kim Jong-Il. That is a shrewd plan when dealing with a crazy person, but in the end, a bully is just a bully, whether he’s crazy or not.
Unfortunately, at some point a swift smack on the nose will be necessary if we truly want to back the recalcitrant dictator up a step or two, which admittedly carries its own unfortunate possibilities. Even if that point is not now, or if and when North Korea sends its missiles hurling dangerously close to our sovereign territory, it does seem to be approaching quickly. Given the rather meek approach taken by all nations thus far, one can only hope that Kim’s own machinations do him under before the international community’s hand is forced.