Life after Kim Jong-il: What next for North Korea?

Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il file picture Kim Jong-il died after suffering a heart attack, reports say

In a year dominated by falling dictators, Kim Jong-il died of natural causes.

Every indication is his people, isolated from the rest of the world, will mourn him.

That says a lot about North Korea and why it is different from kleptocracies like Libya and Syria, one in transition and the other under siege.

What sets North Korea apart from Iraq is that it actually has nuclear weapons, which is why there is not likely to be a Pyongyang Spring any time soon. Eventually, but not now.

Actually, for the foreseeable future, the United States and others with a significant stake in North Korea will want to avoid a Pyongyang Winter - where the regime either explodes, with dire consequences for South Korea; or implodes, sending refugee flows in many different directions.

China will do everything it can to avoid that scenario.

Regime survival

While the death of Kim Jong-il is a shock to the existing system, North Korea had transition plans in place.

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In an era of remarkable global transition - from the end of the Cold War to the development of a community of democracies, a globalised world and this year's Arab Awakening - North Korea held out and held on, the perennial petulant child of the international system”

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The Dear Leader has been in failing health and more than a year ago designated his youngest son, the untested and largely unknown Kim Jong-un, as his successor.

In addition, North Korea has gone through this at least once in the not-so-recent past with the death of the revered Great Leader, Kim's father, the founder of the modern (so to speak) North Korean state, in 1994.

Notwithstanding North Korea's cult of personality, the Kim family, regime elites and military form a collective leadership within the Workers Party of Korea.

Kim Jong-un already holds four-star rank within the security structure - not bad for a twenty-something - but is nowhere near prepared to lead the Hermit Kingdom that is isolated, depressed and literally starving.

The transition will take months, if not years, as it did with the elder Kim. From the standpoint of the North Korean leadership, all that matters is regime survival.

And the leadership has shown itself to be as resourceful as it is brutal.

In an era of remarkable global transition - from the end of the Cold War to the development of a community of democracies, a globalised world and this year's Arab Awakening - North Korea held out and held on, the perennial petulant child of the international system.

Dealing with North Korea was Groundhog Day, recurring cycles of charm and belligerence as it sought to have its cake - nuclear weapons - and eat it too - normal relations with the international community and especially the United States.

Provocative actions, missile launches, nuclear tests and more recently the sinking of a South Korean ship and shelling of a South Korean island, would be followed by diplomatic engagement and promises to take action regarding its nuclear programmes.

Half-steps would inevitably be followed by provocations, beginning the cycle yet again.

Shrouded in secrecy
A co-operative farm manager in North Korea. Photo: September 2011 North Korea's regime is believed to be struggling to feed its population

While North Korea could be contained, it could not be ignored because nuclear expertise was its only real cash crop, which it was willing to sell to a number of bidders - from Pakistan to Iran to Libya.

While this greatly benefited Kim and his cronies, none of this benefited the North Korean people.

Beyond survival, Kim's other legacy is his stunning neglect of the North Korean population.

While no-one knows for sure, it is broadly believed that millions have died of starvation and hardship - a crime against humanity if the term has any meaning.

The stark contrast between North and South Korea in terms of development is attributable to one variable - the nature and quality of governance.

Over the past half century South Korea has grown a global economy and emerged as a regional leader.

Meanwhile, North Korea, which once outpaced South Korea, has actually de-industrialised to the point that it is an economic basket case and can no longer feed its population.

A US delegation led by the new special representative for North Korea, Glyn Davies, was expected to meet North Korean counterparts, including First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan, in Beijing this week.

According to reports, the US hoped to reach agreement on actions that would (yet again) demonstrate North Korea's seriousness about ending its nuclear programmes.

North Korea would receive substantial food assistance, assuming it agreed to international monitoring to ensure food reached those in need and not the military.

The two sides would agree to a path back to six-party talks, within which the US would engage North Korea directly.

All of this will likely be put on hold as North Korea works through its transition.

How quickly North Korea comes back to the table and whether it picks up where the existing dialogue left off will offer some insight into the transition's effectiveness, the leadership's hold on its population and the urgency of the food situation.

In the short-term, tensions could easily rise between North and South Korea.

The North is likely to engage in some rhetorical chest-thumping or provocative action to demonstrate that the regime is still in charge despite Kim's death.

The South, having experienced the sinking of the Chen and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and sinking of the Cheonan naval vessel, may not turn the other cheek the next time.

Diplomatic efforts will be focused on preventing misunderstandings or escalations.

At a strategic level, ongoing events in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Iran - all states that aspired to develop nuclear weapons - can only reinforce to the North Korean leadership how fundamental their nuclear deterrent is to regime survival.

Nuclear negotiations with North Korea, never easy, will probably stalemate again.

But in truth, what North Korea actually does is anyone's guess.

After all, when Kim Jong-il was alive, we didn't know a lot about how things worked in Pyongyang. Now that he is gone, we know even less.

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