North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may not survive the year 2012 and massive unrest is likely to follow his death, the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification speculates. A military coup, riots, massacres and a massive exodus could follow Kim's death, KINU said in its report.
It is rare for a state-run South Korean think tank to go into such detail in forecasting changes in North Korea in a publicly issued report since such speculation is a red rag to Pyongyang.
On Friday, North Korea's powerful National Defense Commission vowed a "sacred battle" against South Korea over a contingency plan for the fall of the communist government. "It is possible that Kim Jong-il's days are numbered, considering his age (68), the fact that he suffered a debilitating stroke in August 2008 and that he has been afflicted by other chronic conditions, including heart disease and obesity," said a source familiar with North Korean affairs.
Cho Min, a KINU researcher involved in the report, said the predictions are "hypothetical." "The year 2012 is when North Korea has vowed to become a military and economic power, so it's a crucial year for the country if there is a leadership change," he said. "Kim's health is the biggest variable in forecasting the future of the North Korean regime."
But KINU has drawn criticism in South Korea for issuing the report at a time when North Korea is especially sensitive to any reference to the regime. The report "touched a raw nerve among North Koreans by addressing the regime," said Yang Mu-jin, a professor at Kyungnam University of North Korean Studies. He warned the North could "respond angrily" again.
Experts say the South needs a contingency for the fall of the North Korean regime but it should be prepared quietly.
The KINU report said if Kim dies suddenly before completing a smooth transfer of power, his immediate family could end up sidelined while a group of officials from the National Defense Commission take control. KINU mentioned other scenarios, such as regime collapse following a large-scale massacre, the military gaining control after law and order break down and the outbreak of a limited war on the Korean Peninsula.
One security expert at a private South Korean think tank said, "Rather than being a rational projection, the report appears to have been written based on wishful thinking." "Nobody can be sure exactly how much longer Kim Jong-il will live or whether the North Korean leadership will collapse," he added.
The KINU report concludes, "Although there is no need to rush reunification, it is time to prepare for such an event. Whether reunification occurs gradually or suddenly, it must be pursued based on a consensus among the people of North and South Korea."