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After Jong-il, what now for DPR Korea?

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In this 9 September 2011 picture, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il attended the Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang to celebrate the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the Workers' and Peasants Red Guards parade. Photo: Xinhua News Agency / Central News Agency

The DPRK’s official KCNA news agency reported on Monday that Kim Jong-il, top leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), passed away on Saturday at the age of 69. Kim, who was general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), chairman of the DPRK National Defence Commission and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), died “from a great mental and physical strain at 08:30 (2330 GMT Friday) on December 17, 2011, on a train during a field guidance tour,” said the report, quoted by China Daily.

Citing a notice released by the WPK Central Committee and Central Military Commission, DPRK National Defence Commission, Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and Cabinet, the KCNA said that the “Korean revolution” is led by Kim Jong-un now and that the party members, servicepersons and all other people should be faithful to his leadership. “All the party members, servicepersons and people should remain loyal to the guidance of respected Kim Jong-un and firmly protect and further cement the single-minded unity of the party, the army and the people,” said the notice.

People gathered in downtown Pyongyang, DPRK, in Mansudae at the statue of former President Kim Il Sung, to mourn the death of Kim Jong Il, according to the Korean Central News Agency. Photo: Xinhua News Agency

The National Funeral Committee, led by Kim Jong-un, has been set up, and the body of Kim Jong-il will be placed at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. The DPRK will be in a period of mourning till December 29 and condolence will be accepted from Tuesday to December 27, said the report, adding that the farewell ceremony will be held on December 28 and the National Meeting of Memorial will be held on December 29.

Xinhua has reported that immediately after the DPRK’s KCNA news agency reported that Kim died Saturday on a train, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak convened the National Security Council (NSC) to discuss follow-up measures with Cabinet ministers including the foreign minister and the defence chief. Lee also ordered all government employees be on emergency alert, a measure that would restrict their unauthorized leaves and put them on standby.
“The government will keep a close eye on situations in North Korea (DPRK),” Ahn Kwang-chan, a senior presidential secretary for national crisis management, said after the NSC meeting, adding ” president Lee asked South Koreans to remain calm and focus on daily economic activity.”

The North Korean flag at half mast atop the Embassy of the DPRK in Beijing on 19 December. Photo: Xinhua News Agency

A video capture of a Korean Central Television broadcast on the death of Kim Jong Il. Photo: Xinhua News Agency

South Korea’s military was also quick to respond to the news. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) put military on emergency alert shortly after the news hit the press and called an emergency meeting. The JCS has stepped up border surveillance, but no unusual activity has been detected, according to Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency. South Korea’s JCS chief Jung Seung-jo and James D. Thurman, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, agreed not to raise the level of the Watchcon surveillance status, according to Yonhap. “Since North Korea is in a lot of shock after passed away of its leader. The generals decided South Korea and the United States shouldn’t create an unnecessary sense of crisis,” Yonhap quoted a military official as saying.

Earlier this year, the Chosunilbo (of South Korea) reported on ‘How N.Korea’s Fate Hangs on Kim Jong-il’s Health’. The fate of North Korea seems to depend to a great extent on the health of its ailing leader Kim Jong-il, who turned 70 this week. “The situation in North Korea could shift drastically depending whether Kim dies suddenly, falls into a coma or sees his health get steadily worse,” a South Korean intelligence official said.

In this 18 November 2010 picture, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visited the North Road, Chang Ping City County plant. Photo: Xinhua News Agency / Central News Agency

Sudden drastic change could happen at any moment, and experts are urging the South Korean government, military and public to be prepared. If Kim Jong-il dies suddenly, North Korea is widely expected to be ruled by the military together with Kim’s inner circle consisting of his third son Jong-un, brother-in-law Jang Song-taek and sister Kim Kyong-hui, who stepped in when Kim Jong-il collapsed in August 2008. The situation at the time “was stable,” said Ryu Dong-ryeol of the Police Science Institute, and the same crisis management team will go to work.

Lee Jo-won of Chungang University warned the new regime “could adopt an even more hardline and reckless foreign policy than Kim Jong-il to prevent internal chaos.” There is also the possibility of Jang seizing power or the military ousting the Kim family and taking control of the regime. In that case, North Korea could face a civil war.

Opinions differed over whether the hereditary transfer of power to his third son Jong-un would face any obstacles in the communist state, which Kim had ruled with an iron fist since his father and national founder Kim Il-sung died in 1994. According to this Korea Herald opinion article, some argued that the process will proceed as planned given years of “systematic” preparations, while others floated possibilities of power struggles among the elite given his lack of experience and a relatively short grooming period.

The Kim family (DPR Korea) tree. Graphic: Korea Times

In this 4 November 2010 picture, Kim Jong Il inspected the construction of hydropower stations in northern Chi Chuan Jiang Daoxi. Photo: Xinhua News Agency / Central News Agency

The North claims that Swiss-educated Jong-un, who was internally tapped as heir apparent in 2009, was born in 1982. Kim Jong-il had 20 years of preparation before taking power, while it has been only several years since Jong-un started being groomed. On the surface, the succession plan appears to be well under way. Following the announcement of Kim’s death, state media reported that the North’s military and people pledged to follow the leadership of the heir. Jong-un’s name also appeared on top of the funeral committee member list, which reflects his position in the power echelon.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, raised the possibility that for the time being, a group of elites from the ruling party may collectively lead the country. “As he is young, a group of elites from the party leadership may lead the country for the time being. However, there would not be power struggles that threaten the legitimacy of Jong-un as North Koreans believe he is in their community sharing a common destiny,” he said. Yang also pointed out that the North would have a lengthy mourning period to stall for time for a stable power transition.

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