North Korea often seems more than just Another Country, it often seems like another planet. It remains one of the most closed, authoritarian, and militarized states on the planet, and it is impossibly difficult to penetrate from a scholarly, cultural, diplomatic, or intelligence angle. As a result, many North Korea analysts are left to play Pyongyang-ology, parsing nuance in official statements, relying on tibits from the few outsiders and diplomats who are allowed into the country, and passive intelligence gathering platforms.
Kim Jong-Il has been off the public stage for a while, but today we learn that he skipped out on the official celebration of the DPRK’s 60th birthday, which would traditionally be a big deal, with parades and of course an appearance by the Dear Leader. Several intelligence agencies are reporting that the Dear Leader is in poor health, but details are sketchy at best.
What is clear that Kim Jong-Il missed a public appearance that would normally be not just required, but an opportunity to again rally the long-suffering North Korean people around the success of Juche in keeping the North safe from the aggressive US. I think that the intel community leaks of poor health are indicative that they know something, but the opaqueness of the whole thing certainly leads one to wonder what, exactly, is going on.
But, that of course, is the nature of North Korea, where things are always opaque to the outsider trying to look in.
One thing that I would be worried about is succession. Unlike 1994, there is (as far as we know), no groomed successor to Kim Jong-Il should he pass from the scene. It is unclear as to who would assume power, what that individual would do, and what that would mean for the future of the DPRK. I could paint a number of scenarios here, but each one would be, honestly, just as speculative as the next. The military could take over, the country could fracture, there could be some sort of coup…
One thing to look for–does anyone move into that public role of stand in, successor, public face of the country given an absentee Dear Leader. Now, this may not happen, because the creation of such a person is of course a threat to the existing power structure. That’s why its always easiest to just pick your kid, usually you don’t have to fear a challenge from your own progeny who are already invested in the family name.