Smooth transition of power to son expected
Andrew Salmon in Seoul
The death of Kim Il-sung draped the mantle of power across Kim Jong-il's narrow shoulders. Now, with Kim Jong-il laid to rest, it is his son Kim Jong-un who carries the flame of communism's only family dynasty.
The local and international risks facing Kim Jong-un appear significantly steeper than those his father faced on his accession to power in 1994, but there are also good reasons for a smooth succession.
'Kim Jong-un faces the greater challenges,' said Dr Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University. 'Kim Jong-il had about 20 years to prepare and could rely on the legacy of his father Kim Il-sung, who was quite popular.'
While state propaganda gushes that the Kim Jong-un is 'head of the army, the party and the state', his only official title is vice-chairman of the Korean Worker's Party's Central Defence Commission, a less powerful body than the National Defence Commission that his father chaired.
The younger Kim was revealed to the public only last year, and is believed to have been groomed for power only since 2008, when his father is thought to have suffered a stroke. And while North Koreans revered Kim Il-sung, the national founder, there is likely less respect for Kim Jong-il, under whose rule the economy plummeted and devastating famines killed an estimated 5 to 10 per cent of the population.
The economic inheritance is a poisoned chalice for Kim Jong-un.
'In 1994, the economy was much better,' said Kim Tae-woo, president of Seoul's Korea Institute of National Unification. 'But now the North is much more isolated, and its economy is really faltering.'
North Korea's economy has been in dire straits since the late 1990s. Pyongyang has lost control of matters in the countryside, where marketplaces have sprung up to replace the failed state distribution system, but the national infrastructure is decrepit and the vast mass of the populace remain desperately poor: the UN believes that as many as a quarter of the population are short of food.
Another negative inheritance is strategic. In 1994, Kim Jong-il had in place a nuclear agreement with the international community, the now-defunct 'Agreed Framework'. Today, Pyongyang has fortified its regime with nuclear weapons, but at the cost of international sanctions and virtual pariah status.
The new leader does have some advantages. In 1994, China was lukewarm towards North Korea. Today, it has come out very firmly in its favour, extending food aid and refusing to strongly condemn its various military provocations.
'Kim Jong-un is surrounded by foreign powers that wish him well,' said Michael Breen, Seoul-based author of a biography of Kim Jong-il. 'People fear chaos.'
Ironically, those foreign powers include South Korea.
While Seoul has halted all high-level contact pending an apology for the naval and artillery attacks of last year that killed 50 South Koreans, there is little appetite for instability, and even less for the outright collapse of North Korea. Speaking in the week before Kim's death was announced, South Korea's unification minister stated that the costs of reunification would range from a minimum of US$50 billion in the first year to a maximum of five times that.
Though Kim Jong-un lacks experience, his uncle-in-law Jang Song-thaek, who has emerged since 2008 as the right-hand man of Kim Jong-il, is expected to be a regent-like guiding figure. Further buttressing the likelihood of a successful succession is the fact that the Kim dynasty is entering its third generation in power.
'Kim Jong-il was the one who had to deal with Marxist objections to hereditary succession,' said Breen. 'Now nobody is saying anything: Kim Jong-un is being no more questioned than Prince William.'
There is also a strong constituency that realises that they must support the younger Kim - or else.
'Anybody who is anybody in North Korea - the elite, which is about 10 per cent of the population - are determined not to rock the boat,' said Lankov. 'They know that if something happens to the boat, they will all drown.'