The photographs and video footage show North Koreans weeping in their
hundreds at the news of Kim Jong-il’s death. But the departed leader, immortalised by Team America as a song-prone loner, remained a mystery to both his people and outsiders alike.
He came to power after his father, North Korea’s founder Kim il Sung, died in 1994. Reliable biographical information about him is scarce. He rarely appeared in public and his voice was seldom
broadcast. What’s certain is that he spent lavishly on both luxuries and a nuclear programme, while millions of North Koreans starved.
Kim Jong-il’s death comes at an awkward moment. North Korea had just agreed to talks between US diplomat Robert King and his North Korean counterpart, Ri Gun, to suspend nuclear enrichment, a key
requirement to restart the Six Party Talks. The US representative for North Korea, Glyn Davies, was in fact due to visit Pyongyang this Thursday.
What happens now, however, is unclear. The US could offer a Myanmar-style engagement, but whether the new regime feels secure enough is the big question. The heir apparent Kim Jong-un takes over,
but is not yet fully groomed. He only rose to the rank of four-star general last year, in what was seen as a bid to extend the world’s only communist family dynasty to a third generation. Therefore
a collective leadership is likely to be established with strong string-pullers in the Party (such as Jang, Kim’s brother-in-law), and star-studded old generals from the army. Weary of being
seen as weak, they may shun any outside overtures and perhaps even stage some sort of military action, on top of the alleged missile tests this morning, to show their continued strength. South Korea’s military is on high alert,
given the risks associated with this transition period.
In all this, China’s role remains crucial. For Beijing, Kim Jong-il’s death is, as Asia expert Jonas Parello-Plesner notes, ‘a nuisance’. China faces its own succession shortly, and
would have preferred for the Korean peninsula to remain quiet. But that may be one of those New Year wishes, like peace on earth, that every hopes for but few think they will get.