Kim Jong-il’s death came like the line from Fletch: He’d been dying for years, but when it came it was very sudden. Now the world waits to see what will happen to the most repressive and secretive regime on earth. For the past two years, Kim’s putative successor has been his third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, whom the world did not even know about until he was abruptly thrust into the North Korean “limelight.” The under-30 Jong-un will likely be mentored (read: controlled) by his powerful uncle, Chang Song-taek, who is Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and has likely been running the government while the elder Kim slowly faded away. Of course, there are also two older sons of Kim Jong-il who at one time were considered heirs apparent but have been thrust into the shadows. They may have designs on the throne and allies in the military or government that we don’t know about.
For now, however, the North Koreans are following the old Soviet script for succession. Kim Jong-un has been named head of the official state funeral committee, thereby confirming his ascendancy for the moment. His work will begin after the funeral on December 28, when he will have to start consolidating his power; alternatively, we may begin to see hints that he is merely a figurehead, such as increased prominence of other leaders. Only if the regime itself is in danger of fissioning or being attacked by the oppressed people of North Korea will the situation on the peninsula change to any appreciable degree.
What Asian and Western governments need to prepare for is some kind of military demonstration, such as a new nuclear test, a ballistic-missile test, or even a limited attack on South Korean territory or property, all of which have been the stock in trade of the Kim regime. As a means to prove that the new leadership is fully in control, as a warning to South Korea and the United States not to take advantage of the death of Kim Jong-il to push for regime change, or because of factional in-fighting among the North Korean leadership to jockey for position, an act of aggression is very likely after Kim Jong-Il’s funeral. The Obama administration, along with its South Korean ally, needs to make clear now that any such destabilizing actions will be met with a response.
Sadly, there is little chance that Kim Jong-il’s death means the dawn of a new spring in North Korea. Its terrorized and brutalized populace will have to endure more horrors at the hands of the third Kim to rule since the end of World War II, and Asia and the rest of the world will continue to wait nervously for another threat to their safety and security. Now may not be the time to try and weaken the new government, but neither is it time to relax our guard. Our wait-and-see attitude is justified only if we are prepared to strike back against unprovoked aggression and retain the moral compass to condemn the regime for the barbarity that it is.
— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian and security studies at the American Enterprise Institute.