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North Korea and the future of nasty dictators

The announcement on Monday of the death of North Korea’s president-for-life Kim Jong-il brought the country back into the spotlight of international attention.  Analysts on all fronts have made tentative predictions about the short and long-term consequences of his death and the succession of his heir, Kim Jong Un.

As North Koreans officially mourn the passing of their Great Leader, citizens gather at memorials in the capital city of Pyongyang.  On Tuesday an assemblage of high-ranking officials including Kim Jong Un formed a solemn procession into the Kumsusan Memorial Palace and the hall where the former president’s body lay on a bier covered with the red blooms of his namesake flower, kimjongilia.

The funeral will not be held until 28 December, and until that time most of the expert observers expect the country to be on hold in terms of any significant political or military activity.  The job in hand is for the North Korean media to solidify the country’s citizenry behind an unknown quantity that is the 20-something year old Kim Jong Un.

Unlike his father, the son has had very little time to train for the mantle of Great Leader; he was only mentioned as potential heir about a year ago, and has no personal following as such.  Various opinions have been put forward as to what might change under the rule of this much younger and as yet untested president.

The North Korean media has issued statements extolling Kim Jong Un’s many virtues, but since he has at this point done nothing of note, the statements are of a general nature.  He is “the spiritual pillar and the lighthouse of hope” for the Korean people, and he is “a great person born of heaven” and the citizens and the military are all united in his support, according to the press releases.

Kim Jong Un is also being presented as the great upholder of the national revolutionary policy of juche, which translates as ‘self-reliance’.  This could be interpreted as a continuation of the international isolation that North Korea has been labouring under for the past couple of decades.  As a case in point, no outside officials have been invited to the funeral.

Major concerns centre around the nuclear arms testing that has reportedly been going forward in defiance of protests from the U.S. and other major powers.  South Korea reported a short-range missile test firing on Monday, but they are not unduly alarmed; it is believed that the test was planned well before the death of Kim Jong-il.  Other situation analysts suggest that it may have been a warning shot to demonstrate North Korea’s readiness to defend itself.

A recent report from Reuters in Beijing indicates that North Korea’s military, a well-supported force of around 1.2 million, has announced its support of the new president, a development that may lessen fears of a devastating power struggle in the short term.  Kim Jong Un’s aunt Kim Kyong Hui and her husband Jang Song Thaek are expected to be the new president’s mentors and help make the transition to whatever the future holds for leadership of the potentially volatile country.


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