I am far from an expert on North Korea, but I find some of the worry over the state of the peninsula following the death of despot Kim Jung-ill somewhat unnecessary, even from a brief glance at the situation there.
The upper echelons of North Korea’s political and military systems – intrinsically tied – are a confusing, secrative mess of similar names, 4-star generals under the age of 30, past purges, exiles, re-emergences, ceremonial positions, long flowery titles with little power, marriages, brothers, sisters, uncles, in-laws and others. It really is a HBO series waiting to happen. Hell, take in the surrounding countries and it’s practically Game of Thrones.
One could go mad reading into who the major players are in North Korea, considering the sheer amount of secrecy that surrounds everything. Just about every last scrap of info you can get on any person or relationship within the system could be ended with the words “we think”.
The youngest son, Kim Jong-un, would appear to be the guy on the spot, being acknowledged as such by state television and taking the lead in his fathers extensive funeral arrangements. However, what little is known about “un” paints a picture of a young man who is very much out of his depth. Brought in as the “heir apparent” only a short time ago, the few endeavours he has been attached to include a currency re-structuring that lost many North Koreans their savings, and an attack on a South Korean base, the biggest flashpoint in the Korean Cold War in decades. He simply lacks the experience to run a country with as many problems as North Korea. If this is Game of Thrones, he’s Joffrey Baratheon. The question then is, who fills the role of Cersei?
In that regard, it would seem likely that most of the real power in the country will now rest with Kim Jong-un’s Uncle, Chang Sung-taek, one of the leaders of North Korea’s “National Defence Commission”, its de facto ruling body. Taek will likely maintain a “regent” type role, allowing the new Kim patriarch to ease into the position of “Dear Leader” in time.
That would be the standard scenario anyway. Since so little can really be known concretely, about North Korean politics and Kim family relationships, you never can be quite sure. Perhaps Taek will want power for himself. Maybe the leaders of North Korea’s military, all men much older and more experienced than Kim Jong-un (appointed a four-star General only a short time ago) may think they’d be better off getting rid of the Kim’s now and taking over themselves.
There’s the leaders of North Korea’s legislature (a body without real power, but perhaps influence) like Premier Choe Yong-rim to consider. There is the rest of the Kim family, the older brothers and sister, who may have their own spheres of influence, their own supporters and plans.
And there is the opinions and desires of others like China and Russia. China, especially, is going to want any succession difficulties sorted quickly and without fuss.
Not that any of the other players in the region, the “six nations” (Both Korea’s, Russia, China, Japan and the US) would really want anything else. Stability and the status quo is what is important right now.
An internal power struggle in North Korea, one that could even escalate to Civil War, is not entirely unthinkable, but it is not the optimal outcome. Such a scenario could easily see violence spill out over North Korea’s borders, leading to a situation where South Korean and American forces would be obligated to do something. That leads to nowhere good.
But I deem that unlikely. We might see some sabre-rattling in the next while as Kim Jong-un settles in, we may even see a military (or some other Kim family member) coup, but regardless, North Korea will change little in my opinion. It is a dictatorship with an indoctrinated population that is very slowly being fed the teachings of freedom and democracy through backchannels, and a week, month and year from now it will be the very same thing, regardless of who is in charge.
And the country still needs outside aid to get by. You need a stable government to get that.
So, no need to be worried. North Korea is not headed towards civil war or collapse, not just yet anyway, and it is not about to attack anyone either. And no one is about to attack it either (or at least they shouldn’t, because it would be quite dumb).
We should not worry about that. We should instead bask in the demise of another of the worlds nastier individuals, while remaining sober with the knowledge that nothing has been gained for the free world. North Korea is, and will remain, a problem to be solved at a later, more practical, time.