TWQ: Kim Jong-il's Successor Dilemmas - Winter 2010
January 1, 2010
In the fall of 2008, Kim Jong-il failed to appear at major events celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Subsequent international media speculation regarding his health prompted the DPRK in October and early November of 2008 to release photos, many of which had clearly been doctored, in an unsuccessful attempt to quell the rumors. Later in November 2008, inspections led by the Korean People’s Army of the Kaesong Industrial Zone and restricted South Korean access to the zone the following December prompted more speculation about North Korea’s leadership: Who was in charge? Who would be? Although Kim Jong-il met with Communist Party of China’s international liaison head, Wang Jiarui, in January 2009 on the eve of the lunar new year holidays, there were still lingering doubts about Kim Jong-il’s condition.
Over the summer of 2009, however, it became clear that Kim Jong-il’s health had improved. In August, he met with both former president Bill Clinton and chairperson of Hyundai Asan, Hyun Jung-eun. During this same timeframe, propaganda to support Kim Jong-un as the successor mysteriously and suddenly halted, raising additional questions about who might replace Kim Jong-il as North Korea’s leader and how the succession process might play out. These developments have only added to uncertainty about the timing and outcome of the North Korean political leadership succession process. These doubts are important because assumptions about the viability of the Kim Jong-il regime will influence the Obama administration’s policy options and decisions to manage U.S.—DPRK relations in the ongoing crisis.
There are three major challenges that any leadership in North Korea faces, and will continue to face in the foreseeable future. First, how will Pyongyang address the dilemma posed by North Korea’s unilateral declaration as a nuclear weapons state while simultaneously seeking to manage political relations with major powers, including the United States? Second, to what extent will the leadership prioritize economic reform? And third, how will it respond to the effects of globalization, including the penetration of information and market economic practices, or marketization, from the outside world? How a current or future North Korean leadership handles these three issues will shape the options and likely U.S. responses to North Korea and the U.S.-DPRK relationship.