Director of Sejong Institute
By Kim Sue-young
Amid mounting speculation over the health condition of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, an expert in inter-Korean relations said Thursday a small group of the elite or a military clique could take over the reclusive state.
Cheong Seong-chang, director of the inter-Korean relations studies program at the Sejong Institute, said a power shift is a likely scenario in the post-Kim era.
``Kim is the only person who can tune differences among major state organizations,'' Cheong told The Korea Times. ``Thus, if he dies appointing no successor, the situation would be complicated.''
Some high-ranking officials could presumably fight to seize power and the person who can receive the most support from political parties and dominate the military would stand as the next ``Dear Leader,'' he added.
Cheong listed Kim Yong-nam, nominal No. 2 leader and ceremonial head of state, and Jang Song-taek, husband of Kim Jong-il's sister, and an official of the ruling Workers' Party as viable candidates.
He did not rule out the possibility, either, that military authorities, considered the most influential group in the Communist state, could lead the country.
In this case, the six-party talks aiming at denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula could be jeopardized because the military has a tougher stance toward nuclear disarmament, he added.
If Kim partially recovers from an alleged stroke, a two-head leadership could kick off, the researcher said. ``The partial recovery refers to the condition that he is not able to move freely but can talk and be conscious."
In this case, he would have difficulties making on-site inspections or making public appearances, which may cause anxiety among his people, Cheong said.
Then, Kim should appoint a No. 2 man, the substantial successor, and form an oligarchy with followers, he added.
If the appointee fails to dominate the military and political authorities, a new faction could rise up and lead the North, he said.
Even if the North Korean leader fully recovers, he is expected to gear up to name an heir, Cheong said.
``I think he experienced a kind of crisis. Although he has postponed the appointment due to confidence in his health, he is very likely to name a successor within two to three years,'' the director said.
Cheong also speculated that a possible vacuum in the North's government may elevate the influence of China. ``It is advantageous for Beijing to have Pyongyang be at its side, considering diplomacy and the six-party talks. China could win the heart of North Korea if it lends a hand when the state has difficulties."
``In my opinion, China cannot affect on the North's political landscape but can affect its future policies,'' he said.
On inter-Korean relations, Cheong said two inter-Korean agreements ― the June 15 and Oct. 4 Declarations ― are the lure to prompt the secretive state into dialogue.
Pyongyang has refused to have inter-Korean talks, claiming that implementation of the two agreements signed by President Lee Myung-bak's two predecessors should come first.
``Everybody knows that North Korea has economic difficulties, so I assume that it is necessary for the North to resume the inter-Korean talks,'' he said. ``If Seoul solves the declarations-related problem, the North cannot but respond to calls for dialogue."