Kim Jong-il’s death
Seoul should manage geopolitical uncertainty
The death of Kim Jong-il will change little in North Korea on a short-term basis but his passing will change the status quo in the dynastic communist country on a medium-and long-term basis. Seoul needs a cool-headed attitude.
Few would believe the North will face either immediate implosion or an Arab-like pro-democracy revolt in the post-Kim era. His foreign-educated third son Kim Jong-un will most-likely take over the leadership. But the 20-something Jong-un is likely to run the country under a collective leadership. The prospective leader would see the erosion of his leadership as time passes. Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law Chang Seong-taek and his wife Kim Kyung-hee might act as regents.
Jong-un has a weak power base, unlike his father who had undergone 20 years of training under his father Kim Il-sung.
Observers are worried about a behind-the-scene power struggle or nuclear instability. The secrecy surrounding the North is well illustrated by the fact that Kim’s death was made public two days after his demise.
South Koreans have enough reason to be angry with Kim Jong-il. He masterminded a 1983 bombing which killed 16 of the nation’s officials visiting Myanmar and the 1987 mid-air bombing of a Korean Air flight that killed all 115 passengers on board.
It is against the norm of humanity to express any feeling other than condolences on someone’s death, however.
On the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, then President Kim Young-sam angered the North with his inflammatory and derogatory remarks. South Korean society was ideologically divided following his passing. Seoul put the brakes on the visit of civilians to the North to pay tribute to the founder of North Korea. This time, the South should not repeat the same mistake.
Kim Jong-il’s death has heightened the possibility of instability on the divided Korean Peninsula as the North is to undergo a change in power. Stocks in major countries fell following Monday’s announcement. This reflects the prevailing sentiment that North Korea without Kim Jong-il might be more unstable, dangerous and provocative than the country under his control. The conjecture is all the more persuasive as public questions boil down to who is now holding the nuclear briefcase.
Despite famine and impoverishment, the North has the world’s largest military. It conducted test nuclear explosions in 2006 and in 2009.
The military must be on high alert without high publicity.
His death will surely affect the South Korean presidential election now one year away. Conservatives may be advocating containment policy while liberals could call for the resumption of an engagement policy.
What the South needs is a calm reaction. Seoul has no reason for either inflaming or praising the North.
Seoul would embrace Pyongyang as brethren only when the North scraps its nuclear weapons and follows a path of reform and openness. Seoul needs proactive diplomacy with Washington, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow for a soft landing of the communist country.