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Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011

ANALYSIS

High-stakes North succession awaited


By MASAMI ITO, JUN HONGO and ERIC JOHNSTON
Staff writers

With the death of longtime dictator Kim Jong Il, all eyes are on North Korea, watchful of whether the sudden power vacuum will be filled smoothly by his son Kim Jong Un.

News photo
On the record: Reporters crowd around an intercom at the Tokyo head office of the pro-Pyongyang group Chongryon for a comment on the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on Monday. AP

Experts say Japan's first order of business is to form a united front with the United States, South Korea, China and other nations to engage the North and prevent it from becoming even more isolated.

The stakes are high for Japan. Aside from its proximity to a state with active nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Japan is a potential destination for tens of thousands of North Korean refugees. Moreover, Pyongyang has yet to account for all the Japanese citizens that were kidnapped by its agents.

Yoshimitsu Nishikawa, a professor of international relations at Toyo University, said it will continue to be difficult for Tokyo to reach out to Pyongyang on its own due to heavy domestic pressure stemming from the abduction issue.

"Nobody wants to see the collapse of North Korea," Nishikawa said. "By creating an international framework led by the U.S. to aim for 'world peace,' Japan can urge North Korea to open up and give support to a certain extent."

Pundits agree that China, North Korea's biggest ally, will play a key role in the aftermath of Kim Jong Il's death. But Nishikawa, a former Defense Ministry official, contends Japan must be part of a multinational approach to keep Pyongyang from falling completely under the influence of Beijing. If that were to happen, he believes, China would strengthen its hand on the Korean Peninsula.

"The last thing Japan needs is for North Korea to fall under direct control of Beijing," Nishikawa said. "That would be the biggest crisis for Japan. The Sea of Japan would become the Sea of China."

The government has also ordered the coast guard to be on the lookout for North Korean refugees who might attempt to cross the Sea of Japan.

But Nishikawa believes it is unlikely a large number will aim for Japan.

"They won't come. They would go to China or South Korea," he said. "The Sea of Japan is too big. I think they'll try to enter South Korea via the sea."

Security experts agree that it's too soon to tell which way the country will turn under its new, young commander. Kim Jong Un, as the grandson of Kim Il Sung and the son of Kim Jong Il, may be accepted without a hitch, or dissatisfaction with hereditary leadership may explode among the public, much like the Arab Spring movement earlier this year that brought down decades-long dictatorships.

Family members of Japanese abductees, meanwhile, expressed hope that the new leader might take a softer position than his father. In 2002, Kim Jong Il admitted to and apologized for the abductions and sent five home. But after that he refused to take further action, saying the issue was "resolved."

On Monday, Shigeo Iizuka, a representative of the families, met with Kenji Yamaoka, the minister in charge of the abduction issue, and urged that the government seize the opportunity.

"There is uncertainty (over the succession) . . . but the new leader may consider the possibility that if he returns all of the abductees the Japanese government might offer aid," Iizuka said. "Please take advantage of this opportunity."

But experts say it is unlikely the young Jong Un, who is still in his 20s, will veer from his father's policies.

Bradley K. Martin, author of "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty," said that Kim Jong Un's role will be to show "filial respect for his father and grandfather." The North Korea expert added that he thinks there is little chance the abductee issue will see a breakthrough anytime soon.

"We have no evidence whatsoever that Kim Jong Un wants to change policies. The indications are that he was chosen precisely because his father believed he would maintain the same old policies that have caused so much trouble for North Korea and its neighbors," Martin said.

Martin added that he doesn't think any progress will be made on denuclearization under the son.

"The nukes and missiles are about all Kim Jong Un has now to back his regime's claim to becoming a 'strong and prosperous country.' There's certainly little prosperity," Martin said.

Meanwhile, some U.S. experts say Kim Jong Il's death and the probable accession of Kim Jong Un had long been expected and that predictions North Korea will implode are off the mark.

Anthony DiFilippo, a sociology professor at Lincoln University and author of the recent book "U.S.-Japan-North Korean Security Relations: Irrepressible Interests," believes the power transition will be smooth.

"North Korea has been preparing for this for a while. Kim Jong Un will continue to be coached by more seasoned political pundits, such as Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law," he said.

The U.S. could test North Korea's seriousness about nuclear disarmament, DiFilippo said, by offering a conditional peace treaty in exchange for disarmament. If, after a year, Pyongyang still has not disarmed, the treaty would become void.



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