A Funeral, Followed by a Transition of Power in North Korea

BY Larisa Epatko  December 19, 2011 at 5:55 PM EDT


An electronics store in Seoul, South Korea, shows reports about Kim Jong Il’s death. Photo by Chiho Jeong/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

The death of North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il on Saturday accelerates the transition to his son, a little-known man in his late 20s, who now takes over a country seemingly in a constant state of tension with South Korea and the West.

We contacted to Kongdan “Katy” Oh, a Korea specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, for some insight.

The South Korean military is on high alert and the U.S. military has stepped up surveillance as precautionary measures. What could happen?

Typically, the military is on alert in this type of situation, but it doesn’t necessarily mean people are expecting provocations from North Korea, said Oh.

The funeral for Kim Jong Il is Dec. 28, followed by a period of mourning, and even in the most militant country, Oh said she didn’t expect any military provocation for at least the next few months.

“But the problem is that any little misunderstanding or miscalculation from both sides on the Demilitarized Zone or anything else” could lead to military confrontation, she added.

Resource: Take a tour of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone


A woman in Seoul reads about Kim Jong Il’s passing. Photo by Chiho Jeong/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Who takes over?

Kim Jong-un, the third son, has been named Kim Jong Il’s successor. He is the head of the funeral committee, which was his father’s role when his father, the “Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung, died in 1994, said Oh.

The younger Kim will be supported by a collective leadership selected from the Communist Party and the military, she said. He’ll start making more public appearances, at receptions and events, and in photos side-by-side with his father and grandfather in every government building, she said.

Resource: Kim Jong Un: Potential Successor in North Korea, but Who Is He?


Kim Jong Il and Jang Song Thaek (dressed in all black) in Pyongyang in undated photo. Credit: KCNA/AFP/Getty Images.

Eyes also are on Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek. Jang was promoted to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission — the country’s highest military body and its No. 2 role — in June 2010.

As the younger Kim’s uncle, Jang will take on the role of guarding and guiding him, said Oh.

Can we expect someone as “quirky” as Kim Jong Il?

It’s hard to tell, but probably not, said Oh. “We didn’t have much of an opportunity to learn about the younger Kim’s personality, because this will be his public debut,” she said. Until he becomes more visible and starts making public announcements, he will remain a figurehead, she continued. “He is a young man groomed under the shadow of his father, scared to death, with a lack of confidence, but nonetheless, groomed to be the crown prince, so he will do his job.”

How will relations continue with the United States and North Korea’s neighbors?

“This is not the time to change or to announce anything new. Everything should be business as usual,” said Oh. Other countries will watch and wait, and tailor policies accordingly. However, they have a reason to be wary.

North Korea has been known for committing acts of provocation, such as sinking a South Korean ship and bombing an occupied island. Those tactics, surprisingly, have tended to result in aid from South Korea and a seat at talks.

In a January NewsHour report from South Korea, Oh Young Nam, a former North Korean security official and defector, said his relatives who still hold positions in the regime said those most recent attacks were intended to show Kim Jong-un’s strength.

View all of the NewsHour’s reports from January on South Korea’s troubled relationship with the North.

On Monday’s NewsHour broadcast, we’ll hear from Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College about Kim Jong Il’s legacy. See all of our international coverage and follow us on Twitter.