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Sudden death shootout in North Korea?

28 DECEMBER, 2011: THE sudden, if not entirely unforeseen, demise of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has turned the media spotlight on the future of this reclusive country and its long suffering people. Most telling is just how little the world knows about North Korea or its secret conclaves and power struggles. Stable succession will remain a major question mark as Kim’s third son, Kim Jong-un, takes over the reins of government.

As the South Korean stock market took a tumble the Korean Herald cautioned, “Given that North Korea has often resorted to violent measures to divert the attention of its people… Kim Jong-un’s planned ascendancy might come with some provocative acts, a risk that could hurt the South Korean financial markets.”

The South Korean Citizen’s Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ) urged authorities to “make a bold decision to send its mourning team.” This was not be. In contrast, Cho Gab-je, a former chief editor of the Monthly Chosun, a conservative paper, lashed out saying, “Historically, Kim Jong-il is guilty of national treason and terrorism.” He continued, “When Hitler died, did the Jews go to his funeral?”

An Al Jazeera opinion piece by Pepe Escobar viewed the event from China’s perspective. “North Korea's key partner remains Beijing. Chinese investment will keep flowing – parallel to diplomatic support. Thus Beijing has the best of both worlds: It keeps a nuclear ally and it perpetuates the status quo.”

Robert Gallucci, a chief negotiator with North Korea under Bill Clinton, wrote in the New York Times, “There may never be a good time to openly advocate the overthrow of the government in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and certainly the moment when a new young leader may have to decide whether he needs to prove his leadership prowess is definitely not the right time. Insisting on regime change now, as Mitt Romney came very close to doing in a statement on Monday morning, creates no incentive for this government to even consider negotiations. It is just plain dumb.”

Also in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote, “The West has reacted to North Korean’s nuclear program by sanctioning and isolating the country. But isolation has mostly backfired. It’s one of the things that keeps the Kim family in power, and we’re helping enforce it.” The Economist magazine quotes Marcus Noland, a North Korea specialist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington DC as saying that country has remained “remarkably insensitive to punishments and rewards” from abroad. The magazine continues, “In other words, it shrugs off both sanctions and support, and its behaviour is mostly guided by domestic political considerations. Foreigners have little leverage.

“Perhaps it is for that reason that many outsiders have chosen to take a sanguine view that the succession will be smooth—at least in the early months—rather than something like a prelude to regime collapse, a refugee crisis, ‘loose nukes’ or even war.”

The Economist concludes: “In the very short term though, it seems unlikely that anyone will make a move… Facing an election year of his own, Barack Obama may find it difficult to pursue a new, softer line on North Korea, even with a new Kim.”

The China Daily perhaps predictably maintains “filial piety” and “political authoritarianism” will ensure the leadership transition is “stable and orderly”. Another neighbour, Japan, takes a less sanguine view. Says Ezra Klein in the Japan Times, “The upper echelons of the North Korean power structure are stocked with elites whose lavish lifestyles are dependent on the status quo. Many of those elites are in the military. And few rulers want to pick a fight with their own military.”