Amid reports that the North Korean leader had suffered a stroke and heavy speculation about the implications, a South Korean member of parliament said on Thursday that Kim Jong Il was recovering quickly and there were no signs that he had lost his grip on power. For lack of hard facts from the isolated country, there is much speculation about the “Dear Leader’s” health and what would happen to North Korea if he were to die.
Leader Kim Jong Il did not turn up to celebrations marking North Korea's 60th birthday this week
With great pomp, North Korea celebrated its 60th birthday earlier this week. But -- unusually -- there was one man missing -- the country’s self-proclaimed “Dear Leader” -- Kim Jong Il.
Markus Tidten, a German Asia expert, thought there was good reason for concern: “The situation is very serious. The fact that the leader didn’t appear at the 60th anniversary celebrations -- an important date in the Asian-Confucian state -- that he didn’t appear on the tribune at all gives rise to speculation that something has happened.”
“When talking about North Korea, one can only speculate but what is sure that he seems, for whatever reason, incapable of appearing in public. It could be illness. It could also be his death -- that cannot be entirely ruled out.”
What is also sure is that there must be a lot of panicking going on behind the scenes. The dictator with his many whims may seem a strange figure to the West. But in North Korea he is a key protagonist. The question now is really, what will happen after him. Who will replace him?
Once again, for lack of hard facts one can only speculate but “we have to assume that the reins of the country will fall into the hands of the military,” said Tidten.
“That would be normal practice in this country. This means that those countries, which want to negotiate with North Korea -- especially regarding the Six Nation Talks -- will have to come to terms with a negotiating partner that is irrational and uncompromising, and probably does not feel bound by any previous agreements.”
In concrete terms, this would mean that North Korea would probably not continue dismantling its nuclear programme. It would also create more chaos domestically.
A zombie state
Political expert Hans-Werner Maull likened dysfunctional North Korea to a “zombie state” -- “a state that is in actual fact dead but doesn’t realise it -- a state which wonders around and creates difficulties. It is not clear how long such a zombie can live. But what is sure is that North Korea is an entity that no longer functions and has not functioned for years. The state cannot even feed its population any more.”
Dysfunctional but not at the point of collapse say some experts. If Kim Jong Il were to die he would be replaced by the military, which would continue to rule the country with an iron fist.
With or without Kim, the suffering of North Korea’s hungry population is not likely to subside in the near future.