The fate of North Korea seems to depend to a great extent on the health of its ailing leader Kim Jong-il, who turned 70 this week. "The situation in North Korea could shift drastically depending whether Kim dies suddenly, falls into a coma or sees his health get steadily worse," a South Korean intelligence official said.
Sudden drastic change could happen at any moment, and experts are urging the South Korean government, military and public to be prepared.
◆ Sudden Death
If Kim Jong-il dies suddenly, North Korea is widely expected to be ruled by the military together with Kim's inner circle consisting of his third son Jong-un, brother-in-law Jang Song-taek and sister Kim Kyong-hui, who stepped in when Kim Jong-il collapsed in August 2008. The situation at the time "was stable," said Ryu Dong-ryeol of the Police Science Institute, and the same crisis management team will go to work.
Lee Jo-won of Chungang University warned the new regime "could adopt an even more hardline and reckless foreign policy than Kim Jong-il to prevent internal chaos." There is also the possibility of Jang seizing power or the military ousting the Kim family and taking control of the regime. In that case, North Korea could face a civil war.
"Nobody will challenge Kim Jong-il as long as he is alive," a Unification Ministry official said. "As long as there is no official confirmation of his death, there will be no major upheaval." Some speculate that a lookalike could uphold the illusion that the leader is well for some time, but most experts believe none exist since there are not even actors depicting him or his father Kim Il-sung in North Korean films.
When Kim was bedridden in 2008, the regime stepped up monitoring of overseas phone calls from Pyongyang. "North Korea will try to demonstrate its stability to the outside world," Prof. Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University said.
◆ Bedridden Rule
North Korea's dealings with the outside world and internal control could fluctuate as they have done over the last two years if Kim becomes bedridden again. "All important decisions in North Korea are made by Kim Jong-il," said a South Korean government official. "If he's in bad shape either physically or mentally, we may see erratic policy decisions being made."