Monday, December 19, 2011

Kim Jong-Il is Dead... What Now?

[Update: More links]
Andrei Lankov's analysis is the one I trust the most. I've listened to him talk about North Korea in person, and he grew up in Stalinist [Correction:] Communist Russia, so he knows a thing or two about how these kinds of countries are run.
Two Posts from the Marmot's Hole with tons of links to coverage to other places.
AsiaPundits includes pictures and video clips.
I like Kushibo's analysis a lot.
LA Times
Toward a Kim Jong-il Reading List (from a Marmot's Hole commenter)

Before we get into speculation, here is something that every article about North Korea should include:

North Korea still operates concentration camps. There is only one limit on how shocking the scale of the human rights crisis in North Korea is: how much information we have on it. The fact Camp 22 exists, and has done so more or less quietly, is a damning repudiation of whatever lessons we were supposed to have learned in Auschwitz, and on every Human Rights organization in East Asia.

A documentary/presentation about a North Korean refugee who grew up in a North Korean gulag.

Get started at LiNK - Liberty in North Korea

More on North Korean death camps.

Come back to this post for updates as I'm able to write them:
I'll post some (pure) speculation on what might happen next, with my own (only somewhat informed) thoughts on how likely it's going to happen:

So... hit refresh and stuff.

From Kimchee GI via The Marmot's Hole: The Announcement on North Korean News: (warning: watching this might make you a traitor to the South Korean government)

The Diplomat on "What Next?"
Foreign Policy doesn't pedict a Pyongyang Spring.
English Chosun predicts a possible power struggle.
Blog: North Korea Leadership Watch "Kim Jong Il has Passed Away"
Wall Street Journal's KJI Announcement plus Analysis
A piece of analysis I like:
Ask A Korean! on why North Korea's ONLY priority is, and must be, regime survival.
Open thread at ROK Drop - new links and revelations might pop up here in the comments.

[Update: don't bother with the Marmot's Hole. The commenters there are being even more asinine than usual on this occasion.] The Marmot's Hole - new links and revelations are highly likely to pop up here in the comments.

In my opinion, The absolutely crucial factor in what happens next is simply this: how well has Kim Jong-il's heir, Kim Jong-un, had consolidated power before Kim Jong-il died -- if he hasn't, all bets are off, and we could have civil war in North Korea by Christmas. If he has, then a lot will depend on what North Korean civilians do with the news bombshell, and how the government/military reacts.

The Key Variables:

  • The level of loyalty North Korean civilians have toward the Kim dynasty (fed by propaganda), balanced against self-interest.
  • The level of loyalty North Korea's military has toward the Kim dynasty, balanced against its loyalty toward its own military leadership - which could change drastically depending on how Kim Jong-un treats that military leadership.
  • The North Korean military's available resources, and whether they have the ability to quell an angry village here and there without losing grip on other areas.
  • The amount of residual anger that remains, after the failed currency reform (shorter summary here), and the level of conviction among North Korean citizens that the underground market system will take care of them better than the Kim dynasty has.
  • The true amount of influence China has in the region... which might be a lot more than we expect, but which might also be a lot less.
  • China's long-term strategy for North Korea, which, given that China's the only country North Korea's had serious contact with over the last decade, will influence events here more than any other nation.

Whether Kim Jong-un has or hasn't consolidated power, here are some things I predict either way:

1. More bluster and tough talk. When has anything in North Korea ever NOT led to more bluster and tough talk from the leaders?

2. Some shit will happen at the border, or in the disputed waters near the border, of the South. Some shots will be fires, some sabers will rattle, some fur will bristle.

3. There will be an increase in defectors across the northern, and probably also the southern border.

4. Information will flow into North Korea faster than ever before. Either because Kim Jong-un is busy consolidating power, or because he sees this as a good time to become more open, or because he's distracted making sure things are stable around Pyongyang, the borders will become even more porous than before.

5. Once information pours into North Korea faster than ever before, it will continue becoming harder and harder to govern the nation.

6. Groups in South Korea and China that have been working with refugees, or with getting information into North Korea, will benefit from global attention (if the world media gives any damn at all about the people, and has any follow-up at all... so I might have to put this one under "maybe")

7. North Korea connections, spies, and Nork friendly useful idiots in the south will also be active trying to intimidate or silence those groups, or minimize their actions.

8. There will be renewed talk about trying to get aid into North Korea, and North Korea will try to get as much aid as possible without making any meaningful concessions... or maybe even WITH concessions.

9. USA and South Korea will both make plays for more influence in North Korea, but will be frustrated to find that, because of their confrontational or silent policies in recent times, they will only get as much influence as China wants them to have... without offering more than they want to offer, or on terms they would consider unacceptable.

10. Some act of belligerence will happen, probably at the border. If North Korea gets away with it, the leader, or those gunning for leadership, will try to take credit for it. If North Korea doesn't get away with it, those same people will be blaming their rivals for power for the botch.

11. If there's a power struggle, and even if there isn't, the new leader (presumably Kim Jong-eun) will be executing a few former high-ranking officials and administrators, to be sure he has no rivals to power, and people loyal to him surround him.

12. Reunification will not happen in the next three years. It will not happen until South Korea has a viable long-term reunification plan, if South Korea wants it then. It is more likely North Korea will be absorbed into China than into South Korea in the next three years, or slog through trying to make it on its own, with help from both South Korea and China.

13. Some useful idiots will suggest expelling all South Korea's foreign workers and replacing them with North Koreans to do DDD jobs. And here's why that won't work.

If Kim Jong-un hasn't consolidated power...
1. The military, and probably a few other people, will make a run for leadership.

2. If there's a struggle for leadership, the losers will be executed.

3. If the struggle for leadership becomes long and drawn-out, the chance of a "Pyongyang Spring" and a grass-roots revolution will increase.

4. If Kim Jong-un dies during the "Game of Thrones," the chance of a peoples' revolution skyrockets, limited only by North Korean civilians' ability to communicate with eachother (better than the military's lines of communication)

5. The candidate who has China's backing will almost certainly prevail, except (but then, maybe even) in the eventuality of an all-out civil war.

6. I would be utterly unsurprised to see a puppet government installed by China at the end of this. I don't think any other country in the world is prepared, or has enough influence in North Korea, to have a realistic shot at this.

7. China won't, however, want to do a naked takeover move, because it would lead to a standoff between China and North Korea, and South Korea and USA (and probably Japan). Given how enmeshed those economies are with each other, China is probably more likely to shut down the North Korean border, tell refugees to flood south, and allow North Korea to lapse into anarchy, than to risk actions that will lead to enough alienation between China and its main trading partners, to actually damage that trade.

8. Signs of weakness or instability in North Korea's leadership will lead to a resurrection of the black market system in North Korea, and a flood of refugees heading north and/or south.

9. Seoul/South Korea will be utterly unprepared for that flood of refugees, and once world headlines stop covering it, will mostly be left to their own devices to deal with them.

If Kim Jong-un HAS consolidated power...
1. Like a new departmental manager, changing things needlessly just to show he's boss, he's going to do a few things to leave his mark on the new state -- including the possibility of another act of aggression toward South Korea, like the Cheonan sinking or the Yangpeyong Island bombing, and subsequent propaganda campaigns, and also including the possibility of economic or military or foreign policy reforms that will have to make him appear strong, while also making political sense for his relationship with the two biggest influences on his ability to rule North Korea: China and the Nork Military.

1.1 If these changes go well, who knows how much longer we'll see a totalitarian regime in North Korea?
1.2 If these changes go poorly, like the failed currency reform, the people might not be far from taking to the streets... but that's hard to tell, because we know so little about North Korea.

2. His survival depends on how well his father's administrative structure was designed -- if he has any ropes still to learn, things could get ugly.

3. His rule and authority depends, most of all, probably, on continuing to limit his citizens' access to information -- once civilians can communicate freely with civilians in other villages and towns, all bets are off, unless they take to him real well... but it's hard to know how he'll be able to make life better for average North Korean citizens, without opening the borders to more trade and aid, and having more news and information get in as well: information which might destabilize his regime, and turn people against him.

What I'd like to See...
I'd like to see Kim Jong-un come in, and take power peacefully.
I'd like to see more food aid, overseen by international human rights organizations, so that it isn't diverted to the Military.
I'd like to see the black market flourish, and turn into a trade infrastructure by which most North Koreans can provide for themselves.
I'd like to see the border get more porous, but slowly enough that there's a transition, not a bloody revolution.


David S. Wills said...

Yeah, I pretty much agree on all points. Sadly, we're going to see some pushing and shoving between the North and the South, and some people may get hurt. We probably won't see all out war, but it might look like it for a few weeks.

Robert Koehler said...

[Update: don't bother with the Marmot's Hole. The commenters there are being even more asinine than usual on this occasion.]

Oh, you big meanie, you...

Roboseyo said...

come on. your comment thread is dominated by people discussing the similarities between Kim Jong-il and Barack Obama.

Robert Koehler said...

What, are you trying to suggest that such comparisons are off-topic, offensive, or both?

Anonymous said...

Like the rest of your blog and especially your trogolodytic right-wing readership, I believe the phrase we're looking for is "eye-wateringly stupid beyond belief."

How that government-funded rag you work for doing these days, anyhow?

Robert Koehler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Koehler said...

Very well, thanks for asking.

Roboseyo said...

wildly, wildly off-topic.

off-topic enough to be offensive, even if the sentiment that Barack Obama is equivalent to Kim Jong-il weren't more offensive on its own than anything Obama's done (with which your commenters are welcome to disagree).

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how the comments thread on this post came to be about Obama. Does anyone have anything to say about North Korea in response to Roboseyo's intriguing post?

Personally, I don't know what to make of the situation. I don't know enough about the region and North Korea is so secretive, I can't even imagine the everyday world of the average North Korean...

Joseph Ferris said...

Interesting analysis, thank you. I'm going to link this post to my blog at

I don't really deal with politics - I want to be invited back for a 2nd trip to DPRK, but I value your insights and want to share.

Roboseyo said...

THanks for the link, and the comment, Joseph: I only found your blog during this week, but I'm very interested to see more of it. Your blog might be unique among blogs about Korea... unless you can point out some others.

So... keep on plugging.

Sergei S. said...

Andrei Lankov was born in the USSR in 1963, 10 years after Stalin's death. Khruschev's and then Brezhnev's Soviet Union wasn't exactly "Stalinist Russia" or North Korea. Dr.Lankov did study at famed Kim Il-sung University in 1985.

Roboseyo said...

THank you for the correction, Sergei.