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Kim Jong Un's North Korea

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Kim Jong Il's death opens a window of dangerous instability for North Korea and the region.

The king is dead; long live the king.

So goes succession in monarchies, where the heir is named and acclaimed at birth, and trained his whole life for future kingship. Nature's common theme is death of fathers, Shakespeare reminds us; when expected and prepared for, the inheritance of power can be a natural evolution.

That's decidedly not where North Korea finds itself today. Instead, the death of 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong Il, who died of a heart attack Saturday at age 69, has ushered in a period of instability for North Korea, and a potentially dangerous time for the region -- including the United States and its allies.

Succession is a tough feat for dictatorships to pull off, and particularly tricky for those who rule like Kim Jong Il. Dictators have two choices: they can either build institutions that outlast them, or they can run the country on the basis of personal relationships. The trouble with the first option is that strong institutions can get rid of a dictator who becomes a liability -- as Egypt's military dumped Hosni Mubarak in February. That's too big a risk for most dictators to take.

Instead, Kim Jong Il, who took over when his father died in 1994, relied on personal relationships and patronage to secure his hold on power. He parceled out state-run trading companies to key people, including the military, to let them make money. He operated through offices whose titles bore little resemblance to their actual importance (one reason North Korea is such a difficult place for outsiders to understand). And as the economy tanked, he wined and dined Pyongyang's elite with luxuries paid for in cash by the regime's notorious drug trafficking and counterfeiting activities.

It worked for a time -- though the 22 million ordinary inhabitants of North Korea paid a steep price.

But then Kim Jong Il died early: 69 years to his father's 82. He had twenty years to prepare to take power; he gave his son less than two. Successor-designate Kim Jong Un has had only a brief window to form his own bonds with key elites, and limited opportunity to rebuild the institutions that might have stabilized his succession. Until September, he hadn't even been publicly named as heir.

Now, the most likely threat to Kim Jong Un comes from the people with guns and money: North Korea's military and security apparatus. It remains to be seen whether the shaky ideological foundation Kim Jong Il bequeathed his son is enough to lock in the authority of a 27-year-old newly minted General (who has never actually served in the military) over North Korea's hardened veterans.

The Dear Leader's early demise makes it more likely, though not inevitable, that factions within North Korea will challenge Kim Jong Un. Competition makes for unstable politics, maybe even collapse or internal conflict. That's not what anyone wants in a country with the world's fourth-largest military, a history of terrorism and unexpected military provocations, and a small, questionably-secured nuclear arsenal.

In the long term, the ascension of Kim Jong Un could give North Korea an opportunity to change course for the better. It would be far more positive for the regime, the world, and the people of North Korea if Kim Jong Un followed a model like Taiwan's Chiang Ching-kuo rather than Haiti's Baby Doc Duvalier, both fellow hereditary tyrants. (It would work out better for Kim, too: Chiang, who created an economically thriving democracy, died in bed of natural causes, while Duvalier wound up penniless, divorced and exiled to France, and now faces criminal charges in the country he abandoned to violence and poverty.)

In the coming months, however, Kim Jong Un will worry about holding onto power first, and his country's political and economic future second. If he's constantly worried about being overthrown by a coup, he won't feel secure enough to even contemplate reform.

Where does this leave the United States and its allies? Unfortunately, squarely in the spectator's seat. Self-reliance and anti-foreign sentiment are linchpins of the regime's legitimacy. Trying to intervene or take advantage of an internal political crisis is likely to backfire. It could push the regime to engage in provocations -- missile tests, shelling another island, even a nuclear explosion -- to prove that it still has full control.

The U.S. should continue to talk to its allies in the region. It should make clear its support for South Korea and its intolerance of provocation, and maintain vigilance among its 30,000 forces on the Korean peninsula. After some time has passed, the administration should also make clear that the transition opens space for a sea change in the relationship. But for now, the best thing the US and its allies can do is watch and wait.

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