USA Today reports that the North Korean dictator died today at 69. “Kim’s death was announced today by state television in a ‘special broadcast’ from the capital, Pyongyang, the Associated Press reported. The state media report said Kim died of a heart ailment on a train because of a ‘great mental and physical strain’ on Saturday during a ‘high intensity field inspection.’ It said an autopsy was done Sunday and ‘fully confirmed’ the diagnosis. Kim’s funeral will be Dec. 28.”
Cigars, cognac, gourmet cuisine, and horizontal exertion — not hard work on behalf of the people — were the more likely causes of his demise. The Washington Post noted that the strongman liked living high and may have suffered from diabetes and heart disease as a consequence. His distractions included a “Joy Brigade” of beautiful women.
On a state visit to Moscow in 2001, he traveled by special armored train that did not spare the smallest luxury, including silver utensils, the finest Burgundy wine and entertainment provided by singing female conductors.
He was fond of bouffant hairdos, big-rim sunglasses and jumpsuits — a bizarre look that prompted the Economist magazine to feature him on its cover with the phrase “Greetings, Earthlings.”
Last year the Wall Street Journal profiled the Korean leader’s favorite luxuries. These included cashmere and silk blend suits, Italian shoes, and cognac. He was, they said, the very epitome of the global consumer.
South Korea went on alert and most capitals were waiting to see who emerges to claim control of the North Korean state. The Australian dollar fell as the news spread and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warned of potential instability in the region. The Associated Press says Pyongyang media is urging the people to rally around the dictator’s heir, Kim Jong Un.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said the country, people and military “must faithfully revere respectable comrade Kim Jong Un.”
“At the leadership of comrade Kim Jong Un, we have to change sadness to strength and courage and overcome today’s difficulties,” it said.
Kim Jong Il unveiled his third son Kim Jong Un as his successor a year ago, putting him in high-ranking posts. Little is known about the younger Kim, who is believed to be in his 20s.
But whether the young man can find his footing in what must be a snakepit remains to be seen. Complicating the calculations is the fact that there is only one thing worth owning in the Hermit Kingdom: its nuclear weapons program. Upon Pyongyang’s atomic bomb effort depends its only viable industry: the blackmail and protection money extracted from its neighbors and the West. The bomb is not only where the power is; it is where the money is. If Kim Jong Un does not immediately gain control of this program then the true lever of power will escape his grasp.
But there may be complications. When authoritarian regimes collapse they often release pent-up rivalries for power. For example, the end of Gaddafi was marked by rebel factions jockeying for control of his chemical weapons. The same dynamic may be playing out in North Korea as cliques fearful for their future may attempt to lay their hands on the trump cards of uranium and plutonium.
In the short run, neighboring countries would probably like nothing better than to see a definite leadership emerge in control of Pyongyang, with positive control over its nuclear weapons program. The worst outcome would be to watch North Korea riven by a power struggle with the fate of its nuclear weapons program completely in doubt.
But that is the downside of “engagement” with an authoritarian regime. It only ever puts off the inevitable question of what happens when a regime change occurs. All of those goodwill missions by Jimmy Carter to North Korea can now have an ambiguous effect if elements which hated the previous dispensation come to power. Kim Jong Il lies dead in his armored train, proof against bullets, but not against the summons of a natural death nor to the sound of history moving on.