North Korea’s Leadership

Officials and North Korea-watchers around the world are wondering about the health of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s reclusive leader.  A photo taken of him two months ago shows him alive but feeble, and American officials believe that he is declining rapidly.  Some observers think that he wants Kim Jong-un, his youngest son, to be his successor, and possibly have Jang Seong-taek, his father-in-law, temporarily serve as regent.

Kim Jong-il’s death could precipitate a power struggle in North Korea that might involve the military.  A civil war might even erupt and the country could descend into chaos, an event which would have serious consequences for other powers.

For this reason, as well as the fact that the North Korean regime could collapse at any moment because of severe economic problems, the US and its partners in East Asia need to develop a coordinated plan regarding what to do if the communist state implodes.  A flood of refugees could pour into China and South Korea, and North Korea’s nuclear facilities might become insecure.  Other countries might have to step in fill the power vacuum and try to reestablish order.  South Korea and China would be the obvious candidates to occupy all or parts of North Korea if anarchy ensues.  It would probably be best for the US and the Koreans  if South Korea became the occupier and eventually unified the Korean Peninsula politically; however, China might oppose having a strong US ally along its border.  What is certain is that nations in the region need to be prepared for such an eventuality so that they will not have to act haphardly when the situation arises.

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