Last week, Kim Jong-il met with a foreign representative, CCP International Department head Wang Jiarui, for the first time since what many intelligence reports believe was a stroke in August. He “warmly accepted” an invitation from Hu Jintao to visit China and even hinted at working with Obama over nuclear issues. However, the North Korean dictator has thinned significantly since the fall, raising questions about his deteriorating health and the regime.
Speculation now abounds over who will succeed the decidedly trimmer Kim (see above picture) if his health does in fact take a turn for the worse. Kim Jong-nam, Kim’s 38-year-old eldest son, is one possible heir. Oddly, he was spotted in Beijing after flying back to China with Wang. In the country for “personal” reasons, Jong-nam offered rare comments to reporters. The South Korean JoongAng Daily:
Jong-nam … told reporters at Beijing Capital International Airport Saturday morning that “no one can say for sure” about who could possibly replace his father. “Only father can make the decision.”
Jong-nam cautiously refused to answer a barrage of questions about his father’s health. “It is a principle not to comment on the health of a figure like my father, so please understand that I cannot tell you anything even if I have such information,” he said. But he signaled Kim’s health has been improving as recently reported by the press, telling reporters that “you have seen the media reports,” when asked whether Kim is recovering.
Other reports say that Kim’s sons may be too young to become leaders, and the most likely candidate is Kim’s close party confidant Jang Song-taek. The BBC writes that “Kim’s failure until now clearly to anoint a successor may indicate divisions within the North Korean elite; or it may suggest that the leadership is trying to avoid ‘lame duck’ syndrome, whereby Kim Jong-il’s authority is diluted by the emergence of his successor while he remains at the helm.”
Kim’s successor will be crucial to North Korea’s future, having to decide on whether to proceed with actions like opening the political process or introducing market reforms to the country’s centrally planned and underdeveloped economy. Whether the tremendous cult of personality surrounding Kim and his father Il-sung will be continued under the next leader remains a major question as well. Furthermore, analysts point out that the other members of the six-party nuclear talks, particularly immediate neighbors China and South Korea, need to devise contingency plans in the event of Kim’s sudden death or incapacitation. Domestic instability and a surge of refugees seeking to leave the country could become very real scenarios.
However, the JoongAng reports that Kim appears for now to have recovered enough from alleged brain surgery to “reclaim the forefront of Pyongyang politics.” Several political developments indicate that North Korea is slowly returning to (its version of) normalcy:
Pyongyang and Beijing have recently showed signs of cementing political ties, designating 2009, which is the 60th anniversary of the two countries’ official diplomatic ties, “the year of North Korea-China friendship.” China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue also visited Pyongyang earlier this month as part of an exchange program for government officials from both countries.
Other recent signs also point to Kim’s recovery. For one, the North’s communist party announced earlier this month that a long-delayed parliamentary election, though a mere formality in the Stalinist country, will be held on March 8. Experts interpreted the announcement as another sign Kim may be well because the candidates are handpicked by the Workers’ Party and Kim must approve them. The election has been delayed since last summer.
Kim’s reported public appearances, whether real or not, have doubled to seven times in January compared to three during the same month last year.
However, despite hints toward dialogue with the Obama administration, Pyongyang retains its hardline stance toward South Korea. Military tensions between the two have recently flared. The AFP reported Tuesday that Seoul will deploy remote-controlled mines called “spider-bombs” along its northern border by 2013. Pyongyang has also steadily strengthened its missile forces over the last few years. The Japan Times:
Pyongyang may have bought sufficient time, in dragging out the six-party talks, to make nuclear warheads that are small enough to fit on the cones of some of its missile arsenal. … The North’s nuclear-tipped missiles — many of which are mobile and can be hidden, moved around and fired quickly — could then strike South Korea and Japan, as well as U.S. forces based in both countries.
Analysts say North Korea has deployed about 800 truck-mounted ballistic missiles, with most in underground facilities ready to move. Several hundred of these missiles could reach as far as Tokyo. Gen. Burwell Bell, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, warned in July that the North was upgrading its arsenal to make the missiles more mobile and easier to launch.
Kim is expected to appear again in public on February 16 at his birthday celebrations. If he shows signs of returning to his former robust self, then he may well be on his way to recovery. But an even thinner Kim could be a sign that the next “Dear Leader” is coming sooner than expected.
Peter Cassata is associate editor of the Atlantic Council.