According to news reports released this weekend, Kim Jong-il died at the age of 69 after taking over from his father in 1994. The heir apparent is his son, Kim Jong-eun, a reportedly 28 year old four star general in the North Korean army.
So what’s next for North Korea? Making predictions about the Hermit Kingdom is notoriously difficult, even for seasoned observers. I think the young Kim will assume the trappings of power for the time being, and he’ll be allowed to hold nominal power as factions from the Kim clan clash against factions of the military, the most powerful institution in the country. What I do know is this: time is not on the side of the Kims. One misstep on their part, and they’ll likely be purged, given the first available chance. With the military running the show, I think we’d be more likely to see more moderation in their behavior, and, driven by a mix of incentives and threats from China, a gradual thaw in their relations with the rest of the world.
Because for as ‘stable’ as North Korea seems right now, it’s not really stable so much as it is rigid. A slow, incremental process of reforms could well open up the country in a gradual, methodical manner. Or it could explode from the center, causing a humanitarian and political crisis the region hasn’t seen since the 1950s. But whatever happens next, the status quo in North Korea is nearing its end. Something different, something unknowable, is about to happen. We’d do well to prepare for every possible contingency, as the predictability of the situation is close to zero.