Those who were close to Kim Jong-Il, the 69-year-old North Korean ruler who died Saturday, may have truly loved him. And judging by reports of the anguish of millions of North Koreans, he was beloved by the very people who suffered great deprivation at his hands.
Few outside of North Korea, however, will either mourn or miss Kim, who ruled for 17 years. He took over from his father, Kim Il Sung, and his death apparently sets the stage for the elevation of his son, Kim Jong Un, about whom little, including his precise age, is known.
North Korea is perhaps the most mysterious country in the world. In this unique Stalinist nation, information entering or leaving the country is tightly controlled, visitors are scarce, and the government is hostile, even paranoid, with outsiders.
While North Koreans mourn, much of the rest of the world, including the United States, is said to be cautiously optimistic that relations with the so-called Hermit Kingdom will improve. There is optimism because the relationship has been icy for decades. And there is caution because as bad as things have been, the situation could actually get worse.
Though the younger Kim is the designated successor — in fact he’s the “Great Successor” —there is little certainty he will prevail in the internal struggles to come. His claim to fame is that about a year ago, he was elevated from near obscurity to the rank of four-star general. It’s fair to wonder much respect that sort of promotion commands from the general staff and rank-and-file military personnel.
Other unknowns and concerns include whether he might feel the need to flex his political muscles by a provocative action such as a nuclear test or an attack on South Korea.
“The situation could become extremely volatile,” said Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and one of few Americans who have made visits to North Korea. “What the North Korean military does in the next 24 to 48 hours will be decisive.”
We hope for stability, and in the longer term we hope Kim Jong Un, or whoever seizes power, recognizes the futility of North Korea’s present course and steers the country toward full acceptance among the world of nations. Though they’ve learned to be suspicious of North Korea, other nations would likely welcome the opportunity to exchange goods, services and ideas.