THE leader of the last totalitarian state, Kim Jong-il, is dead. But this is not the end of near totalitarianism in North Korea or the end of the Kim dynasty.
The new leader of North Korea will be Kim’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, who was anointed successor and made a four star general over a year ago.
While young Kim, not quite 30, will inherit the top leadership position it does not mean he will simply succeed and carry on as his father did. He cannot.
Without a real power base or proven ability his capacity to govern is dependent on the major power brokers willing to implement the will of his father – a man who caused untold misery to a people left hungry for much of his 16 years of rule.
Among those who will play critical roles is Jang Sung-taek, deputy head of the National Defence Commission or the highest organ of power.
Jang is Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and the chosen ‘re gent’ to ensure the smooth succession of Kim Jong-un.
But Jang is now in a position to play his own game. Will he be the loyal regent wholeheartedly dedicated to help the young general consolidate control is a big question? I will not bet on it.
The Kim dynasty will survive for a while, though for how long is anyone’s guess.
Neither keeping the status quo nor reforming along the Chinese model is easy. Young Kim cannot replace his father and command the establishment as his father did.
Nor does he have the statute and authority to order the adopting of the Chinese approach. At the moment even young Kim cannot be sure what the future holds.
Since North Korea has a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, a record of using its military might to attract global attention, and the potential to trigger a crisis that puts China and the United States on opposing sides, we cannot afford to ignore where it goes from here.
The frustration the rest of the world has is that the future of this country is in the hands of an unproven young man with an unknown sense of responsibility and there is apparently little the outside world can do to influence it.
The general wish is that China will somehow stabilize North Korea and make young Kim behave responsibly.
Much as China should be encouraged to play a positive role to ensure North Korea will not become a de-stabilizing factor, we must realise that Beijing’s agenda and ours are not the same, apart from not wanting to seea crisis materialize in the near future.
While China did not want North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons to begin with it is not interested in encouraging North Korea to surrender them in a deal with the Americans.
From Beijing’s perspective, North Korea is China’s backyard, not a place where it can tolerate the US or an American-led effort to transform it into a state that is not dependent on China for its survival or for breaking its international isolation.
The rest of the world, including the US, need to recognize this reality. They must think more creatively in offering a prospect for North Korea to use this leadership change to find a real alternative to sustaining itself by nuclear blackmailing or descending into a de facto modern vassal state of China.
Professor Steve Tsang is the director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.
Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.