Is Kim Jong-Il Fearful of an Uprising?

A South Korean naval ship sank on March 26 after an explosion ripped the vessel into two. Suspicion of the source of the explosion immediately focused on North Korea, although South Korean and American officials emphasized that there was no proof that the incident was an attack and that it could have resulted from a collision with a mine planted decades ago. If North Korea is behind the explosion, the reason may lie in reports about the country’s population becoming more aware of the oppression they are being subjected to.

Initially, South Korea and the U.S. downplayed notions that the ship was sunk by Kim Jong-Il’s military. The location of the sinking was in the Yellow Sea near the North Korean coast in disputed waters that have previously been the scene of naval clashes as recently as November. The South Korean defense minister is now stating that he thinks the explosion was caused by a torpedo, but he isn’t ruling out the possibility of an accidental explosion from a Korean War-era mine or the deliberate targeting of the ship with a mine.

The chairman of the South Korean National Assembly’s Defense Committee says that two North Korean Shark-class submarines under surveillance disappeared between March 23 and 27, and they have been unable to determine the location of one of them on March 26, the day of the explosion. The South Korean defense minister initially noted that the vessel did not detect an incoming torpedo on its radar, but this official says that doesn’t matter. North Korea has advanced acoustic torpedoes that slowly stalk their targets so their sound blends in with the engine to escape detection.

High-ranking South Korean officials are voicing their increasing belief that the sinking was the result of hostile activity, but the U.S., eager to avoid a dramatic escalation, is doing the opposite. The commander of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula says there is no evidence of North Korean involvement in the incident and recommends waiting for a joint U.S.-South Korean probe to figure out exactly what happened.

North Korea has remained eerily silent about the entire affair. They have not denied involvement. On April 4, they actually ratcheted up the crisis by accusing the South Korean military of crossing into the demilitarized zone and shooting at one of their posts, which has been denied.

If North Korea is behind the ship’s sinking and is provoking a heated confrontation that would require some form of retaliation, the question is why. The answer may lie in the fact that the population of North Korea is becoming more aware of their destitute situation, threatening the stability of the regime and the succession process.

In June 2009, Kim Jong-Il officially chose his third son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. In 2008, Kim Jong-Il suffered a stroke, and rumors about his declining health have been constant ever since. He is believed to be partially paralyzed and suffering from kidney failure.

Kim Jong-Il’s poor health makes it important for the regime to stifle dissent so that leadership can be handed over as smoothly as possible. A major confrontation may be seen as the way to hold the military and country together and to show off his son as a strong, capable leader. However, Kim Jong-Il has used almost all of his tricks to create such a confrontation and catch the attention of the world. More extreme measures would be necessary to achieve this goal.