Kim Jong-il’s Death: What to Watch for Going Forward

UPDATE (21 December): So far, so good on Kaesong, one of the key indicators of stability and the state of North-South relations. Despite some reports of shorter hours and a tense atmosphere, the businesses in the complex are operating normally with little fallout detected or expected. If conditions in Kaesong remain stable, it’s a sign both of stability in the North’s government and non-hardline factions maintaining at least some influence in Pyongyang. Other indicators are mentioned below, in an earlier posting.

There is a lot out there on Kim Jong-il (KJI)’s death, his son and successor Kim Jong-un, and ‘what it all means’. I will not attempt to bore you by duplicating that here. Instead, I’ll highlight what to watch for over the coming weeks and months:

1. Changes in the status of Kaesong, the joint North-South industrial complex located in North Korea. A closing of the complex (unlikely), or new restrictions on its operation, indicate a harder line faction (likely from the ruling party, but possibly the military) is gaining the upper hand. The opposite, an expansion of the facility, indicates technocrats are gaining favor.

2. Increased mention in the North Korean press of Jang Song-taek (Kim Jong-un’s uncle) or one of KJI’s other sons. Jang is already one of the most powerful people in the North, thanks to his marriage to KJI’s sister, and the early transition to the young Jong-un could further empower him, or tempt him to make an outright grab for control. Press mention should offer a window into this possibility.

3. A quick visit to China by Jong-un (unlikely) indicates both that he feels secure about his position in Pyongyang and that he desperately needs aid.

4. Nuclear testing and/or long-range missile launches (today’s reported launch of two short-range missiles is relatively minor) indicate a hardline faction, likely the military, is gaining power and the new leader is appeasing them. Conversely, a lack of such testing indicates technocrats, likely from the foreign ministry, are gaining power.

I hope this helps. If you have any other suggestions about what to look out for, please leave them in the comments box, below.

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