On Saturday, December 17, 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, 69 years old, passed away while traveling on a train to a field visit. According to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s official international news organ, Kim suffered a fatal heart attack. A period of national mourning has been declared, and the official funeral is set for December 28.
Although his death was sudden, speculation around Kim Jong Il’s mortality in international media commentary has dogged the North Korean leader since he suffered an apparent stroke in 2008. Within North Korea, succession plans for Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, Kim Jong Un, believed to be in his late 20s, have been in place for at least the past three years. For the past two years, Kim Jong Un accompanied his father to all major official gatherings, including a visit to China last year where he is said to have received the support of the government there.
Despite conjecture that Kim Jong Il’s passing will lead to political instability, what is clear is that the succession plan has strong internal and Chinese sanction. Signs of the changing of leadership, including endorsement of experienced leaders from the Workers’ Party and the military, were clear at the Workers’ Party conference in September 2010. Kim Jong Un also appears to have support from within the Kim family. Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyung Hee, and brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek, are expected to help mentor the younger Kim as he assumes leadership. Kim Kyung Hee heads North Korea’s light industries and has helped spearhead the country’s economic reforms. Jang Song Taek is Vice-chair of the National Defense Commission. Both are high-ranking members of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Although Kim Jong Il was selected as Kim Il Sung’s successor in the mid-1970s, he did not officially assume power until three years after the death and mourning of his father in 1994. Kim Jong Il’s leadership coincided with the most difficult times North Korea has faced since the Korean War, including the collapse of the socialist bloc in the early 1990s, the depletion of its energy reserves, and the great famine known in the North as the “arduous march” in which some 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans died in the mid-1990s. In 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of an “axis of evil” and identified that country as a possible target for pre-emptive nuclear strike, setting U.S.-North Korea relations on a downward spiral from which it has yet to recover.
While there is no doubt that North Korea has experienced serial setbacks in realizing its ambitious goal of achieving prosperity by 2012, public support of Kim Jong Il’s pursuit of normalization of relations with the U.S. as an integral part of denuclearization negotiations appears to be unshaken. While there are reports of disillusionment within the society over economic reforms or lack thereof, there has been no visible discord with regard to the issue of maintaining the country’s sovereignty. This task now falls to Kim Jong Un and the upcoming generation of North Koreans.
The critical issue for North Korea—one that defined Kim Jong Il’s leadership—has been maintaining sovereignty while breaking out of its diplomatic isolation from the West. Relative to that task, Kim Jong Il, as the late South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun remarked upon meeting him in Pyongyang in 2007, was “the most flexible man in North Korea.”
Kim Jong Il’s death comes just as tensions in U.S.-North Korea relations appear to be easing. Agreements between the two countries were reached this past weekend in Beijing. It is expected that the United States will soon announce that it will send 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea in exchange for North Korea’s agreement to suspend work on its nuclear enrichment program. This is the first significant diplomatic breakthrough in four years, a welcome sign of engagement between the two countries that could lead to improved relations between the U.S. and North Korea as well as North and South Korea.