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Questions Emerge About Post-Kim Era In N. Korea

Roh Moo-hyun (right), then the president of South Korea, is greeted by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a welcoming ceremony in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Oct. 2, 2007.  North Korea has released little information about its leader's health.
AFP/Getty Images
Roh Moo-hyun (right), then the president of South Korea, is greeted by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a welcoming ceremony in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Oct. 2, 2007. North Korea has released little information about its leader's health.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency says North Korea has asked it to remove its seals and cameras from the Yongbyon nuclear reactor.

This move comes just days after Pyongyang vowed to restart its nuclear program. It also follows reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has had surgery for a stroke, sparking intense speculation that the reclusive leader is seriously ill.

Mass hysteria and grief convulsed North Korea after Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, passed away in 1994. Mourning was, of course, mandatory, but there was also public fear — fear that the leader who had protected them was gone, and uncertainty about what might happen next.

Some North Korea watchers believe the same response might greet the death of Kim Jong Il. But in the two weeks since worries about his health emerged, there have been no signs of anything unusual in North Korea.

Still In Control

Paik Hak-soon of the Sejong Institute says this shows that Kim is still at the driving wheel.

"He definitely appears to be in control, even though he might be at his hospital bed," Paik says. "If he had lost capacity to communicate and control, we would have seen all kind of indications, like dramatic upsurge of communications and even movement of troops of North Korean army."

The scenario that most worries Pyongyang's neighbors is the political implosion of the country, which could cause tens of thousands of hungry refugees to pour over the borders. But in the event of Kim's sudden death, Edward Reed, the Korea representative for the Asia Foundation, does not believe that is likely.

"I don't think most people see an immediate period of chaos or unrest in North Korea during a transition from Kim Jong Il to a new leadership group," Reed says. "But in the long run, we'd have to see how long that arrangement would last and what pressures would emerge on it."

A Major Step Backwards

The army's position has been strengthened over the past decade by North Korea's "military first" policy, and now Pyongyang's nuclear weapons add a new, even more dangerous dimension to the situation.

For five years, five countries, including China and the U.S., have tried to persuade Pyongyang to disable its nuclear program.

Monday's move breaking IAEA seals on its reactor is likely to be seen as a major step backwards, and analysts in Seoul say such developments follow the same negotiating strategy Pyongyang has used in the past.

Cai Jian of Fudan University says that even China, North Korea's closest ally, worries that any change in the power balance could jeopardize North Korea's nuclear disarmament.

"Kim Jong Il is probably less hard-line than the military on the nuclear question," Cai says. "If he dies, or the military hard-liners seize power, the problem will be harder to solve."

Choi Jin-wook of the Korea Institute for National Unification believes Kim Jong Il's death could change the regional power balance.

"Definitely Chinese influence will increase, because China has diplomatic relations, China has an embassy there, China shares the border," Choi says. "So China is the first country which can understand the situation and influence North Korean elites."

Avoiding Looking Weak

For the outside world, another danger is that whoever succeeds Kim Jong Il will perceive himself as facing external threats and stage a show of strength.

Brian Myers of Dongseo University categorizes North Korea as a hard-line nationalist regime, and says the biggest danger to any successor is looking weak.

"Whoever succeeds Kim Jong Il — whether it's a person or a group of generals or a group of Workers Party officials — they will need to show very quickly they are in control of the country," Myers says, "and this perhaps may tempt them into some kind of provocative action or something in the outside world that might be seen as a provocation, whether it's a military launch or something more serious."

There also is the humanitarian situation. North Korea is facing its worst food shortage in a decade, but Il-Dong Koh of the Korea Development Institute believes the need to gain support means economic reform is more likely in the post-Kim era.

"This new political group has to earn new reputation and legitimacy," Koh says. The only way to do that, Koh says, might be to "bring in new breath in the economic activities, which means the higher possibility of taking reformative measures."

The level of unknowns is such that one expert — whose job is to watch North Korea — responded to one question by saying, "Sorry. I didn't bring my crystal ball."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.