North Korea's future now hinges on Kim Jong Il's son


There have been threats by the North Korea's 1.2 million member army to annihilate South Korea, the North's secret nuclear weapons program, the firing of missiles toward Japan, the unprovoked attack on an island military facility, and the starvation of millions of North Koreans.
Now that the dictator who oversaw it all, Kim Jong Il, is dead, South Koreans are not optimistic that things will get better.
"I hope that North Korea can change," Han said. "They are having a hard time, no food, no money. It is time for them to open up and get help from other countries."
What concerns him most is the uncertainty of the transition to the "great successor," as the son and heir apparent Kim Jong Un has been labeled by the North's state-run media.
Little is known about the plans of Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be in his late 20s, in replacing a father who ruled North Korea for 17 years with a totalitarian regime. Experts worry that a battle for primacy in the secretive dictatorship could prompt rash actions against the South, or lead to a flood of refugees.
"I worry about the economic situation" in the South more than war, Han said.
Kim Jong Un, the youngest son of Kim Jong Il, was born to his third wife in either January 1983 or 1984 and was promoted to the Workers' Party Central Committee, North Korea's governing Cabinet, in September 2010, according to Global Security, a public policy group focusing on defense issues. Sometimes said to resemble his father, he was educated in Switzerland and is reported to be a fan of NBA basketball.
Park Su Hyun, a former palace guard for Kim Il Sung, the first dictator of the North and grandfather to Kim Jong Un, says his worry is for the people of North Korea.
"I know that whenever these kind of things happen, North Korean people get scared the most," says Park, 45, who escaped the North in 1993 and is now in Seoul. "I think they are 10 times more scared than the South Korean army."
Thousands of North Koreans marched Monday in Pyongyang to mourn the dictator's death, many sobbing and flailing their arms in grief that reflects the cult of personality that the "Dear Leader" maintained. Some kneeled and bowed repeatedly, and many laid flowers at memorials.
South Korea put its military on high alert. In Washington, the Obama administration urged a stable leadership transition. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it had seen no alarming change in North Korean behavior and made no change in alert readiness for the 28,000 U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula.
Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack while on a train Saturday, following a life's work spent on creating one the world's most closed and repressive governments.
Human Rights Watch says Kim Jong Il was responsible for the deaths of perhaps millions of North Koreans through widespread preventable starvation, terrible prisons, forced labor camps and public executions.
"Kim Jong Il will be remembered as the brutal overseer of massive and systematic oppression that included a willingness to let his people starve," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "When he assumes leadership, Kim Jong Un should break with the past and put the human rights of North Koreans first."
Tens of thousands have died in camps for alleged enemies of the state. An estimated 200,000 North Koreans work in conditions of near starvation and whole families are jailed for the crimes of one family member. Leaving the country without official permission is considered an act of treason, punishable by torture and imprisonment.
The decline of North Korea into an impoverished hermit state came as other nations in the region have made large economic advances that have lifted living standards.
In 1976, North Korea was more educated, productive and open than China, said Nicholas Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. But for the past 15 years Pyongyang has been the only industrialized economy to lose the capacity to feed itself and has relied on emergency international humanitarian relief.
North Korea has claimed that its food problems are caused by the cutoff of aid from the former Soviet Bloc and a "hostile policy" of the United States. But Vietnam progressed well beyond North Korea economically despite also losing Soviet support. Eberstadt said the North's central-planning socialism and massive military spending are to blame.
One worry is that the North will threaten the South to show the world its new leader is unafraid of conflict, heightening the risk of an unwanted clash of traditional military forces on the border.
"The fact that both forces are anticipating threats could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially if the North's activities and intent become even more secretive during its leadership transition," said Alexander von Rosenbach, senior analyst, Armed Forces, at IHS Jane's.
Former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill suspects the situation will be "dicey" ahead. Hill says Kim Jong Un has a tenuous grip on power and will be surrounded by the military leadership — and the question is how the military will behave.
"The consensus that I got from the Chinese was a sort of an underwhelming sense that this kid is really ready for the reins of power," Hill said. "It's clear that he's not ready to do this."
Top Obama administration officials — including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — spent Monday in discussions with their counterparts in South Korea and the region.
"We hope that the new North Korean leadership will take the steps necessary to support peace, prosperity and a better future for the North Korean people," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Kim's death comes as a shock to most North Koreans, as the nation's media has "never previously reported on his illness," said Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, a British tour operator based in Beijing that leads tours to isolated North Korea.
"He has been a constant in their lives, someone people have seen more than their own parents or children," said Cockerell, who has visited the country 108 times since 2002.
The personality cult, started to glorify his father Kim Il Sung, is such that "every apartment in every building, and every office, has a portrait of Kim Jong Il, he's in the newspapers every day, even though he never speaks in public, and he dominates the TV news," Cockerell said. "If he visits a duck farm, it's bigger news than anything in the world."
North Korea is currently closed to visitors, from Dec. 15 to Jan. 15, as it is every year at this time, Cockerell said.
"Authoritarian regimes or dictatorships are vulnerable to instability and power transitions," said Daniel Pinkston, an Asia analyst based in Seoul. But he said there has been a promotion of a younger generation into administrative and leadership positions and "they owe their loyalty to Kim Jong Un."

Contributing: Aamer Madhani and Gregg Zoroya in Washington; William M. Welch in Los Angeles; Eunice Kang in Seoul.

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