Monday, December 19, 2011

Dear Leader Dead, Long Live Great Successor

While all had known that Kim Jong Il had long been seriously ill, his death on Saturday of a heart attack in a train has taken many by surprise, with citizens of the DPRK (North Korea) showing the same sort of hysterical grief they did when his father, Kim Il Sung (Dear Leader) died in 1994, which in turn repeated the sort of reaction seen in the Soviet Union on the death of Joseph Stalin.

In contrast with the long delay of reporting Kim Il Sung's death, it has taken only 48 hours for Kim Jong Il's death to be reported, with DPRK media reporting that his third son, Kim Jong Un, is to be called the Great Successor. Kim Jong Un had been reported to have been favored by his father and to have been groomed for acceptance by the family and military elites that rule the nation. Pretty clearly this ruling group has decided that he is to be the front man for continuing their dominance, although it is almost certain that it will be some time before he will be able to asert anything like the dominance his father and grandfather would come to have.

So, in the intermediate term the prospect is for stability, even as the South Korean stock market dropped 5% on the news before rebounding some, along with a drop in the ROK won as well, and various military maneuvers have been reported near the DMZ. Inter-Korean relations have been particularly bad during the past year, since military attacks by the North, thought by many to have been made to impress the DPRK military with Kim Jong Un on his appointment at a four star general.

Even as the near term seems to augur continuation of the system that has produced five straight years of GDP decline and ongoing malnourishment of large parts of the rural population, particularly in the nation's northeast. However, underneath this apparent stasis, many changes seem to be going on. Cell phones have spread widely, as have informal markets in various goods, towards which the government has oscillated in attitude. Chinese pressure to follow their model has steadily increased, and in recent months there have been reports of negotiations with the US. Kim Jong Un studied in Switzerland. So, there may be major changes down the road, if not immediately, particularly as the Great Successor may need to imitate in economic policy what was done in military policy this last year to assert his legitimacy to be officially on top of the nation's system. But this death and succession does mean the further future becomes much less clear.

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