Wait begins

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 December, 2011, 12:00am

The death of the bouffant-coifed, platform-heeled North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il on Saturday ushers in a new era of rampant speculation, pontification and no doubt obfuscation about what's really going on inside the hermit kingdom.

The fact is that, late last week, Kim appeared just fine as he toured a supermarket, posing beside his son and heir presumptive, Kim Jong-un. It was not until late yesterday morning that word came through to stand by for an 'important announcement' at noon, Korean time. The initial assumption was that North Korea was going to beat Washington to the punch with a deal on a 'moratorium' on missile and nuclear tests in exchange for resumption of US food aid to North Korea.

Now, all bets are off as North Korea goes into mourning for the man who was known as the 'Dear Leader' while ruling his starving people with an iron hand through 17 years in power. What's sure is that his third son, Kim Jong-un, is the titular leader. You only had to see his name at the head of the funeral committee to know that the clique around the centre of power was going to honour his father's wishes to that extent.

For now, we will have to wait to see what happens to the move towards reconciliation between the US and North Korea that appeared well under way. The new US envoy to North Korea, Glyn Davies, was due to meet a top North Korean official this week in Beijing - the prelude, it was widely assumed, to the first six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme since late 2008.

The six-party talks, hosted by Beijing, may yet come to pass, but not until North Korea has gone through a power shift that may be little understood beyond the inner sanctums of power in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un may well appear to be his father's heir, just as his father was heir to power after the death of Kim Il-sung in July 1994, but the fact is that Kim Jong-il was far better prepared to take over.

Kim Jong-un, anointed a four-star general by his father and seen standing beside him in an enormous display of military might in October last year, will have difficulty making his way among the ageing generals who control every region of the country.

More immediately, he will have to show he's capable of dealing with a conniving aunt, Kim Jong-il's sister Kim Kyong-hui, and her ambitious husband, Jang Song-thaek. Jang ranks as one of four vice-chairmen of the National Defence Commission, the centre of power in North Korea, of which Kim Jong-il served as chairman. How Kim Jong-un manipulates matters among generals who know much more about what's going on within the ruling elite of Pyongyang will be the stuff of intriguing drama - with a denouement that's far from certain.

It's possible, though, that the generals, the relatives and in-laws will all decide it's best for their own survival to rally behind the young man as a unifying and conciliatory figure - conciliatory, that is, within the top circles of power in Pyongyang.

A question for the US, South Korea and others will be whether he feels the compulsion to show off his power with rhetoric and perhaps threats, or whether he will be in a mood for reconciliation with North Korea's long-time foes.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea


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