North Korea announced the death of its “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il — who has led one of the world’s repressive governments for the last 17 years — yesterday, leaving his younger son as the dictator-in-waiting.

A newsreader said that Kim Jong Il’s death while on a train on Saturday was due to “an advanced acute myocardial infarction, complicated by serious heart shock” which came about due to “a great mental and physical strain caused by his uninterrupted field guidance tour for the building of a thriving nation.”

Ally China had a fascinating front page today in its China Daily paper:

The official North Korean news agency ran a message announcing “He passed away too suddenly to our profound regret. The heart of Kim Jong-il stopped beating, but his noble and august name and benevolent image will always be remembered by our army and people.”

It’s easy to mock Kim Jong-il — and Team America: World Police did a good job of it — but the leader’s actions weren’t funny for his subjects, notes Austin Ramzy in TIME:

“…the ridicule could not conceal the fact that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who died at age 69 on Dec. 17, was able to maneuver his small, totalitarian nation into a force that compelled deep concern and even fear among the world’s powers. He did so at a great cost to his people, including millions who died in famines in the 1990s and hundreds of thousands who are enslaved in prison camps.”

Kim Jong-il’s third son, Kim Jong-un, has been named “Great Successor”, although he’s only been in the public eye for the last year. So what will happen to the country that has been largely shut off from the outside world and is the world’s only communist monarchy?

The Guardian has a sad photo gallery full of mourning Pyongyang residents, with workers crying in the streets and bowing to his statue. Economic Times paints a picture of the closed-up capital:

“On the streets of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, people wailed in grief, some kneeling on the ground or bowing repeatedly. Children and adults laid flowers at key memorials… Other North Koreans walked past a giant painting of Kim Jong-il and his late father, national founder Kim Il-sung, standing together on Mount Paektu, Kim Jong-il’s official birthplace. Wreaths were neatly placed below the painting.

“How could the heavens be so cruel? Please come back, general. We cannot believe you’re gone,” Hong Son Ok shouted, her body shaking wildly during an interview with North Korea’s official television.”

They may be mourning, but Kim Jong-il’s power had diminished in recent times with most North Korean citizens living in poverty, argues an article from the Economist (published late last year after the journalist visited Pyongyang):

“There is no sign of the ‘radical improvement’ in North Korean living standards that officials once talked of achieving this year. Neon lights blazed in a few places during the journalists’ visit, but foreign residents say that the city is normally dark at night. Power is so intermittent that policewomen (invariably young and pretty) still direct traffic at intersections with traffic lights, which are a very recent innovation in Pyongyang.

An unsupervised visit to a department store (a rare treat for normally chaperoned foreign journalists) revealed Pyongyang’s dearth of consumer culture. In half an hour, your correspondent saw only a trickle of customers and just four items being sold: a pencil, a wind-up plastic frog, a quilt and a golden statuette of a soldier. On the fourth floor a member of staff adjusted a red curtain at a marble shrine to Kim Il-sung. Others watched television, amid swathes of unused floor space.”

At the very least, it’s obvious that Kim Jong-un will be the new leader, writes Simon Tisdall in The Guardian:

“It is highly significant that two days elapsed between Kim’s death, reportedly of a heart attack during a train journey on Saturday, and today’s public announcement of his demise. If powerful members of the extended ruling clan, or leading generals in the National Defence Commission (NDC), were going to successfully challenge the handover, they might have been expected to have done so by now. The unified stance presented to the world suggests there will be no destabilising internal coup-making, at least for now.”

There’s still uncertainty because the public do not know Kim Jong-un (sometimes spelt Eun) very well, notes Jaeyeon Wood in The Wall Street Journal:

“During the last transition of power in North Korea, Kim Jong-il was far better known to North Koreans and outsiders than Kim Jong-un is today. The younger Mr. Kim has been in the public eye for only a year; when his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung, died in 1994, Kim Jong-il had been known to North Koreans for 20 years. And for more than 10 years before his father’s death, Kim Jong-il was portrayed as active in government policy-making.

Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui, and her husband, Jang Song Taek, a close aide to Kim Jong-il, could act as regents for Kim Jong-un to help him gain enough power within the Worker’s Party as well as the military to run the regime, some analysts say. Questions remain whether the couple will pose as rivals to the younger man.”

It’ll be a tough transition of power, with Kim Jong-un’s first step being to run his father’s funeral. It will be his first test, says Martin Fackler in The New York Times:

“Some analysts said Kim Jong-il had used the three years after his first brush with mortality, a stroke in 2008, to successfully build up support for this untested son, who is believed to be in his late 20s. They also said North Korea’s ruling class might also recognize that, at least for now, they have no choice but to accept the succession: the elder Mr. Kim’s two older sons are seen as lazy playboys, while any move to reject the Kim family could undo the legitimacy of the entire regime”

Just because the Dear Leader is dead, doesn’t mean that North Korea will be a less dangerous entity, argue James Simms and Tom Orlick in The Wall Street Journal:

“The main risk is that inexperience, and Kim Jong-un’s desire to consolidate his power base at home by acting tough abroad, will result in a disastrous foreign-policy misstep. As recently as November 2010, missile attacks on a South Korean island brought the temperature on the peninsula to a boiling point. A similar move by Kim Jong-un would have disastrous consequences.”

On a foreign policy front — with concerns that Kim Jong-il spent recent years building his nuclear arsenal — things should remain calm for a while yet, reports Krista Mahr in TIME:

“Will Pyongyang cause trouble for the region as it transitions to a new regime? Analysts say North Korea is likely to be too preoccupied with its own dynastic drama to create any trouble — for the present. “North Korea is very unstable now,” says Ha Tae Kyung, president of Tokyo-based Open Radio for North Korea. “The government wants to minimize the risk that could worsen [its domestic situation].”

 

Peter Fray

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