7 questions about North Korea's future

The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has raised a number of questions about the future of the totalitarian state, and while it's difficult to predict the future of such an isolated and secretive country, a number of experts weigh in on some important questions.
In this image made from video, a North Korean woman cries as others bow in front of a giant statue of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Tuesday, a day after North Korea announced the death of leader Kim Jong-il. (APTN/Associated Press)

The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has raised a number of questions about the future of the totalitarian state, and while it's difficult to predict the future of such an isolated and secretive country, a number of experts weigh in on some important questions.

So, who’s in charge?

Officially, Kim Jong-un, the 20-something son of Kim Jong-il, will succeed his father, having been groomed for the position over the past couple years. But his youth and inexperience is not expected to sit well with the military leadership, which has been effectively running the country since Kim had a stroke in 2008.

"They’ll trot him out as the official leader but in practice, the military will pull the strings behind the scenes," Christian Leuprecht, an associate professor in the department of political studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., told CBC News.

"I think the key litmus test will be how much are we going to see the new guy in public, what is he going to say, what is he actually going to do. If he doesn't show up in public, doesn' t say much, doesn't do much, it suggests the military leadership is doing its best to keep him in the background or he's very happy to play this obliging role." 

What are the immediate concerns about Jong-un?

The worry of some experts is that the politically inexperienced Jong-un may try to burnish his credentials as a strong leader by orchestrating provocations against South Korea.

A soldier walks behind a barbed-wire fence near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas in Paju, about 50 kilometres north of Seoul on Tuesday. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

Paul Stares, director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, a non-profit think-tank based in Washington, D.C., told reporters there is some evidence that Jong-un was involved at some level in the decision to attack the South Korean naval ship and shell the island in the West Sea.

"So there is obviously concern that, as part of the transition process, that we may see provocations of this kind — again, designed to enhance his leadership and image as a strong leader in North Korea."

Can we expect major changes in the near future?

A radical departure or change in policy in the near future is unlikely, Evans J.R. Revere, former president of the New York-based Korea Society, told CBC.

"The system they have in place emphasizes continuity, not change. Kim Jong-il was a continuation of his father and I think his son will be a continuation of the policies of his father."

Revere said making any radical changes may also be seen as questioning those policies.

"My hunch is you're going to see more continuity than change in the near term because that's the way they do business in North Korea."

What happens to the nukes?

That may depend on Kim Jong-un’s ability to consolidate power and maintain control over the arsenal, according to Jennifer Lind, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College based in Hanover, N.H., and who specializes in Korea.

But the "truly horrifying" scenario, Lind told PBS News, is if he is unable to do so, the regime collapses or there's a civil war and we're no longer sure who has authority and who had the nuclear weapons.  As well, there is the possibility of seeing those nuclear weapons disappear into global black markets.

What role does China play?

North Korea’s most important ally and major provider of food, oil and military aid, has a selfish interest in keeping the regime stable. A collapse could mean a flood of refugees across their border.

North Korean women cry after learning about the death of their leader, Kim Jong-il, on Monday in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Kyodo News/Associated Press)

Victor D. Cha, senior adviser and Korea Chair for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank, said China is already on record for expressing support for the leadership transition.

"But presumably this was on the assumption that Kim junior would take power years from now, not today," Cha wrote in the Financial Times. "Despite Chinese statements of support for North Korea, debates still rage about whether to keep supporting the broken country, and these can only intensify with Kim’s death."

How about the U.S.?

U.S. diplomats have been meeting with North Korean officials in the last few weeks.

Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and Director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said there had been some anticipation recently of a third round of U.S.-North Korean bilateral talks, with reports they may have begun at the end of the week.

But he said that is unlikely to happen now.

However, he added, the U.S. does have some interesting decisions to make regarding whether, in the context of this transition, it might want to announce provision of food assistance now, "especially since the talks have already occurred and presumably there was some level of understanding reached about the conditions under which the United States would be willing to provide that assistance."

Stares said Kim’s death presents "some potential upside opportunity." He said the U.S., in close co-ordination with its allies, should consider how to signal the North Korean leadership of the possibilities of policy change in North Korea "and potentially offering inducements for them to carry out certain changes in policy that we would welcome."

What does Kim's death do for reunification prospects with the South?

Probably not much. Leuprecht said South Koreans aren't looking for a Germany-type reunification given the exorbitant costs of absorption, considering that North Korea is in far worse shape than East Germany was.

"They pay lip service to unification but nobody in the South is really interested in having some rapid reunification with the North," Leuprecht said.