Kim's death offers chance of change

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

The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was not unexpected. He had seemingly been preparing for it amid reports of serious health problems. It is therefore also no surprise that official media is already hailing his anointed successor, youthful third son Kim Jong-un. Yet the world is on alert over the implications for regional stability and security of a leadership change in an isolated, backward, impoverished state whose only claim to modernity is development and possession of nuclear weapons in defiance of world opinion.

China is the only country in close contact with Pyongyang. It is to Beijing therefore that the world will be looking for some sign of what the future holds for the hermit communist regime. Kim Jong-il had been there twice with his son in a bid to lock in support for the succession. But Beijing can be expected to adopt a wait-and-see stance because there is a question that remains to be answered. That is whether Kim Jong-un is in control with the backing of the leaders of one of the world's biggest armies, or if the generals are really running the country. A power struggle could complicate a potentially dangerous situation.

China's immediate concern is stability on its border with North Korea - an escape route for potentially millions of refugees in the event of upheaval in its neighbour. But a rare window of flux at the top presents a chance for the powers that have striven to negotiate with North Korea to think about how to deal with Pyongyang now. That will be the subject of diplomatic contact among the long-suffering negotiators with Pyongyang in the six-party talks to deal with its nuclear programme - Beijing, Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and Moscow, who should be prepared for any contingencies.

The international community will see a very important and influential role for China in ensuring stability, given that its neighbour has proved so unpredictable and has such a large army. But Beijing will be concerned about how much power the son really has and is unlikely to show its hand quickly.

Kim's death is an opportunity for changes in North Korea which would make the world a better place. Sadly, that is unlikely to happen soon. It could be argued that the status quo offers hope of short-term stability. But that aside, the world wants change. The status quo, after all, is a dangerous state of affairs in a regime that has proved to be an untrustworthy nuclear negotiating partner and is happy to let its people starve if that is what it takes to get aid on its own, unreliable terms. There have been moves behind the scenes to get American food aid flowing again in return for agreement to wind back Pyongyang's controversial uranium enrichment programme. If Kim's death does not derail those moves, that would be encouraging for hopes of stability.



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