After Kim's Death, Region Worries About Instability

Dec 19, 2011
Originally published on December 19, 2011 4:57 pm
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.


I'm Robert Siegel. And we begin this hour on the Korean peninsula. In North Korea, public displays of mourning for leader Kim Jong Il. He died on Saturday from reported heart failure. North Korean television has been showing pictures of people weeping in the streets, and issuing calls for North Koreans to show their loyalty to Kim's designated successor - his son, Kim Jong Un. In South Korea and among North Korea's other neighbors, there is anxiety about what this transition means for the entire region.

NPR's Louisa Lim arrived in Seoul today and joins us now. And Louisa, what's the reaction to Kim Jong Il's death there?

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: First of all, there's surprise. And also, there's a lot of worry about what might come next, this period of uncertainty. The military has been placed on high alert here. The government's been holding emergency meetings, and stock markets plunged on the news. We heard this report by Yonhap news agency that North Korea test-fired a short-range missile early on Monday morning before the announcement of Kim Jong Il's death was made.

So some people are saying that's a routine thing, but others believe it's a symbolic show of force by North Korea. But all of this is contributing to the sense of nervousness among people here. And one person I spoke to said he felt there was a higher chance of conflict between the two Koreas. That kind of view isn't untypical.

SIEGEL: Now, apart from the reported missile test, is there any other news out of North Korea since the announcement of Kim Jong Il's death?

LIM: Well, we've been seeing these extraordinary public displays of grief inside North Korea; people kneeling in front of statues, wailing and crying. And it's interesting that this kind of thing is also a loyalty test. When Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994, the party actually conducted surveys to see who displayed the most grief. And those people who stayed dry-eyed and just got on with their jobs as normal and didn't cry, they were actually punished. So that kind of thing looks like it's happening again.

We're also hearing reports from some groups with links inside North Korea that markets have been closed down, and we also are hearing reports that the border to China has been closed until January the 15th. So that would seal off the country and stop a flood of defectors to China, in the event of any unrest inside North Korea.

SIEGEL: Louisa, do people there know, exactly, how the succession process would work in the north? Is it automatic that the son, Kim Jong Un, becomes the leader? Is there some vote that takes place? What do they say?

LIM: Well, it is a hereditary communist dynasty - very unusual kind of political system. And it looks as though the mantle of power is being passed down to a third generation. Kim Jong Il's third son, Kim Jong Un, was unveiled to the world as his successor last year, and he's also been named as the head of the funeral committee. We're hearing the North Korean news agency KCNA has been calling him the great successor, and saying that North Korean people would support and trust his leadership.

So that's pretty much as good as an official announcement that he will be the next leader at the moment. But it may also be the case that it's a rather long time before the successor actually takes over. When Kim Il Sung died, his son, Kim Jong Il, took three years to officially take over all his functions. So if Kim Jong Un actually follows that lead, there could be an interregnum - and quite a long one, which might have implications for stability.

SIEGEL: In light of that and how long it might take for things to become formal for Kim Jong Un, are there concerns in South Korea that there could actually be a struggle, with somebody else, over succession?

LIM: Yes, there are. In fact, it's interesting. There are really divided views among analysts here. Some people are saying that in fact, there have been systematic preparations since Kim Jong Il is believed to have had a stroke in 2008, so there are likely to be no serious challenges. But others are very worried about the possibility of power struggles among the elite. They also worry that Kim Jong Un doesn't necessarily have enough control or power bases within the military or the security apparatus.

And then, there are also concerns about the role that his uncle, Chang Sung Taek, might play. He'd been seen as a kind of regent who might usher through the interregnum. But now, some analysts are saying he might up being a challenger to Kim Jong Un. The real truth is that nobody knows, but everybody agrees there is likely to be some degree of instability, and that this is North Korea's most precarious power transition to date.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you, Louisa.

LIM: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Louisa Lim, reporting today from Seoul, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.