Tonight, stomachs across North Korea rumble in mourning. It is not food that they cry out for, but rather it is for their beloved, and now deceased, leader Kim Jong Il. On Sunday, North Korean state television revealed to the world that Kim Jong Il, the sole remaining member of the ‘Bat Shit Crazy Dictators Club’, passed away at the relatively young age of 69.
On December 4, I wrote that his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, was sweating his way through a “Chariots of Fire” worthy Dictator-training montage put on by his father. When I wrote that article, I never thought that Kim Jong-Il would fall over dead a fortnight later. Then again, I didn’t think that Steve Jobs was going to die the same night I wrote about Apple after Jobs. Yesterday, I thought about writing my next piece on Bill Clinton, but after this second coincidence, I dare not. I don’t want to live in a world without Bill.
You’d think that being at the absolute pinnacle of the food chain in a country that has the world’s 4th largest army, a highly-advanced ballistic missile program, and which is a card carrying member of the N-bomb club would come with some Mayo-clinic esque medical options. While we may never know the real cause of his death, I suspect that Kim Jong Il became the ultimate victim of the same “Juche” isolationist philosophy that killed 3 million of his citizens in the 1990s. Unlike the Shah of Iran, or King Hussein of Jordan, there would be no midnight medical flight to the West.
The eyes of the world now fall on Kim Jong-un, and his tenuous grip on power. After suffering a major stroke in 2008, Kim Jong Il realized his impending mortality and in doing so he named his youngest son as his successor. But up until then, Kim Jong-un was known in Western intelligence communities to be the Judy Winslow amongst the Kim family; he was by all accounts the forgotten son.
While Kim Jong-un is the declared leader of North Korea, we should not assume that he is in charge. Kim Jong-un’s power rests solely in his emergence as the undisputed leader of the National Defense Commission of North Korea (NDC), the country’s supreme governing body. Up until Saturday, the NDC’s Chairman was Kim Jong-il, with one party secretary and 14 Generals forming the rest of the committee. All power in North Korea originates from this body, one that Kim Jong-un was not previously a member of. Now with the death of his father, the younger Kim must emerge as the Chairman and bring the NDC under his rule.
Prior to Kim Jong Il’s death, North Korea teetered on the brink of economic collapse. Now with the Great Leader gone, the stability of the Korean peninsula hangs by a thread. If Kim’s government collapses, South Korea would suddenly have 23 million hungry stomachs descend upon it. If Kim is usurped by the military, or perhaps even by Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law Chang Sung-taek, South Korea could soon have 3 million soldiers stream across the DMZ.