Uncertainty Ahead as North Korea Ends Mourning for Kim
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ Droves of mourners were still visiting the statue of North Korea’s late President Kim Il Sung this week, even at 2 in the morning, ″intensely longing for him, tears stealing down their faces in grief.″
These North Korean media accounts sound like typical hyperbole of the controlled press in a country stubbornly clinging to classic communism.
But as the traditional 100-day mourning period ends this weekend for the man who led North Korea for a half century, many people are apprehensive about what the future without him holds.
U.S. negotiators are trying to get the secretive, isolated nation to open its doors, abandon its nuclear weapons program and lower the level of tension with South Korea that has threatened the peninsula since its division after World War II.
After Kim’s death July 8, many South Korean analysts predicted a power struggle between rival factions in the North. Others said the Stalinist regime would crumble, yielding to the same tide that swept across eastern Europe five years ago.
But some analysts now forecast an uncontested transition of power to Kim’s enigmatic 52-year-old son, Kim Jong Il, although it is still unclear when and how he will emerge from seclusion to claim the presidency and assume the full mantle of his father’s authority.
If the succession is not in doubt, questions remain about whether or how long the new regime will survive:
-Can the younger Kim, who pushed his country’s nuclear program, unblock the Geneva talks with the United States aimed at thwarting the North’s ability to make atomic weapons?
-Can he turn around an economy shrinking by 5 percent a year or, if not, can he keep a lid on public discontent?
-Lacking his father’s prestige and charisma, can Kim Jong Il maintain control of the military? Many old-guard generals are said to dislike him.
″Kim Jong Il faces a lot of problems in the next three to five years,″ said Huh Moon-young, an analyst for a South Korean government think tank, the Research Institute for National Unification.
Kim must give more to his people, who are suffering from food and oil shortages, before potential rivals in the military, the party or even his own family move against him, Huh said in an interview.
″Even if his regime collapses, it doesn’t necessarily mean the collapse of the system,″ he said. ″I don’t think North Korea is as weak as many people believe.″
South Korea’s worst nightmare is an East German scenario - a sudden cave-in of communist rule with thousands of desperately poor, untrained people fleeing across the border.
Guenter Unterbeck, a former East German diplomat who lived 10 years in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, said North Koreans remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and ″will make every effort to ensure that Korean unification would not happen the way German unification took place.″
Kim’s succession has been choreographed since 1974, when he was acknowledged as next in line, making North Korea the only communist country to establish a dynastic leadership.
Over the years, he placed his supporters in key positions in the government and in the ruling Workers Party of Korea. Two years ago, he was named chairman of the National Defense Commission in charge of the military, though he had never served in the armed forces.
The personality cult that made Kim Il Sung a demigod known to all as ″The Great Leader″ was gradually extended to his son, ″The Dear Leader.″
Virtually nothing is known about Kim Jong Il outside North Korea. But there are plenty of rumors, fueled by his absence from public view since his father’s July 20 funeral.
Reports have said that he suffered liver cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure, that he was in a serious traffic accident, and that he fell off a horse.
″We don’t really know what,″ Huh said, ″but we are quite sure something is wrong with him.″