Under threats of a second famine in less than a decade, North Korea confronts a potentially debilitating political crisis of power succession. With its supreme leader Kim Jong Il reported to be gravely ill with a stroke, a pall of uncertainty hangs over the country’s future relations with its neighbours.
Days have passed since he missed reviewing a troop parade on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the regime on September 9, and news of Kim’s hospitalisation, reported by US and South Korean intelligence, has yet to be officially broken to 23 million North Koreans.
Intelligence officials in Beijing, Seoul and Washington conclude that Kim, 66, has had a brain surgery or a bypass, conducted by a team of foreign doctors in North Korea. He is said to be recovering, regaining consciousness and ability of speech, but one well-informed Chinese official, according to press reports, concluded that even if Kim recovers, it’s doubtful that he could resume leadership.
If Kim misses the next key event, a troop parade marking the October 10 anniversary of the founding of the party, it would amount to a conclusive proof of serious illness. More officials in Seoul anticipate the curtain closing on the long-running Kim dynasty.
In the view of most experts here, the post-Kim power structure can either continue dynastic succession or entail collective leadership, a coalition of power maintained by the party and military figures.
Most observers discount the likelihood of dynastic succession, with one of his sons following the pattern of Kim Jong Il’s own succession of his father, the state founder president Kim Il Sung who died in 1994.
Kim has three sons with two former wives. The eldest, Kim Jong Nam, 37, who has a reputation of being a playboy was caught entering Japan on a forged passport. The father is still said to be furious over the incident, Jong Nam has since been banished to a life of semi-exile in Beijing, Macau and Hong Kong, with North Korean spies watching his every move.
Not much speculation focuses on obscure Kim Jong Chol, 27, the second son, said to suffer from some illness. His brother, Kim Jong Un, 25, remains a darling of his father, according to South Korean intelligence analysts, but too young for any state posting.
None of the sons have had the training and exposure that their father had for 20 years before formally assuming power following his father’s death. Kim Jong Il has held the top post now for 14 years, out of the total of 64 years that the Kim dynasty has ruled North Korea. With that record of family longevity in power, the post-Kim system must accommodate one or two family members in the new collective system.
Kim Jong Il undoubtedly has had such family continuity in mind for some time. A North Korean delegation that visited Washington in the waning days of the Clinton administration surprisingly included Kim Ok, his fourth wife, described as politically alert and ambitious, eager to back her stepson Kim Jong Un in any power succession scheme. She herself could join the collective leadership.
Another key relation almost certain to be included from the party’s side is Chang Song Thaek, 64, married to Kim Jong Il’s sister. He has background in the party’s work in organisation, economic management and security affairs. His wife is current minister in charge of light industry.
Whatever shape it takes, the post-Kim power structure will be watched with keen attention in Beijing. For the last three decades, China - from Deng Xiaoping to Hu Jintao - has consistently backed Pyongyang taking the course of economic reform and opening. China also opposes the North developing a nuclear arsenal or long-range ballistic missiles. Now that these weapon systems are under serious development in the North, with which Beijing shares a 1,300km border, China would have to keep a close tab on their progress.