Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Dear Leader's Birthday

North Korea’s President and “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il turned 69 on Tuesday (or maybe 68, like most things in the world’s most secretive nation even the president’s age is something of a mystery). And despite the massive public celebrations, the day sparked another round of speculation on what will happen once Mr. Kim finally leaves the stage for good.

The question on who will follow Kim Jong-Il took on a new urgency in mid-2008 when the Dear Leader suffered a serious health problem, now widely believed to have been a major stroke – for months there was even a strong belief that Kim was actually dead. Since then Kim has made a series of public appearances, but it is clear that his health has taken a decided turn for the worse.

Running North Korea has been a Kim family tradition since the nation split in two in 1950. Kim Jong-Il took over from North Korea’s “Eternal President”, his father Kim Il Sung following the elder Kim’s death. It was assumed that pattern would continue when Dear Leader Kim passes away as well. But Kim Jong-Il apparently thinks his eldest son is too dumb for the job (Kim Jong-Nam once tried to sneak into Japan on a fake passport to go to Disneyland Tokyo), and his second-eldest son “too effeminate”, thus passing the mantle to his twenty-something son, Kim Jong-Un. The problem is that in North Korea’s cloistered web of leadership, Kim Jong-Un has virtually no experience. According to South Korean watchers, this has led Kim Jong-Il’s sister Kim Kyong-Hui assuming more of a leadership role by taking over a portion of the Korean Workers Party, one of the state agencies that wields power within North Korea. Kim Kyong-Hui had once held a powerful position within the North Korean leadership, but had fallen out of power due to infighting within the Kim regime.

And if all of that sounds just a little too Byzantine, this week Foreign Policy magazine published a piece on their website claiming that the United States has few plans to deal with North Korea once Kim Jong-Il passes away. It’s feared that Kim’s death will spark a battle for succession within the ranks of North Korea’s leadership, which is split among the military, the Communist Party and the Kim family. In turn that could likely spark a wave of refugees fleeing from the chaos in North Korea and possibly even a conflict with South Korea. But FP argues that despite these fears, the United States has few plans in place to promote regional security or to protect our allies, the South Koreans.
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