GMF Asia Experts Comment on Death of Kim Jong-il
The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il casts a pall of uncertainty over the impoverished but nuclear-armed regime he leaves behind. GMF experts have provided the following comments for use by the media.
Dan Twining, Senior Fellow for Asia (Washington, DC)
“Kim Jong-il's death is a reminder of how much Asia has changed since his father founded North Korea's dynastic monarchy. Unlike then, when Asia was largely weak, poor, and dictatorial, today much of Asia is strong, prosperous, and free. North Korea's totalitarian regime is allied to the main Asian power that remains an authoritarian holdout from this broader trend: China. This raises the question: will China help guide a transition in Pyongyang that leads it to join Asia's mainstream economic and political order? Or will China's defensiveness about both Koreas' natural interest in a balancing relationship with the United States lead Beijing to support a continuation of the Kim regime, despite its dangerous nuclear proliferation and extraordinary human rights abuses? The ball is in Beijing's court.”
“Beijing will be very nervous about the situation on the peninsula. Chinese officials were confident in Kim Jong-il's capacity to hold things together in Pyongyang as long as he was alive but would have liked Kim Jong Un to have more time to consolidate the succession. They had felt confident enough over the last year to start pushing North Korea on economic reform issues but this will snap them back into their default position of supporting stability at almost any price.”
Dhruva Jaishankar, Program Officer for Asia (Washington, DC)
“Kim Jong-il's death provides North Korea the opportunity to turn a leaf on its rogue nuclear program. North Korea under Kim acted in defiance of every other country in the region, and contributed greatly to northeast Asia's insecurity in a desperate bid to prevent regime change. The new dispensation in Pyongyang now faces a choice as to whether to remain a nuclear pariah, or make a gradual return as a full member of the international community by rejecting its nuclear ambitions.”
Daniel Kliman, Transatlantic Fellow for Asia (Washington, DC)
“The death of Kim Jong-il poses a geopolitical challenge to China. The regime in Pyongyang could collapse, paving the way for a unified Korea allied with the United States – Beijing’s strategic nightmare. If North Korea weathers this abrupt leadership transition, it may emulate another Chinese ally concerned about a creeping loss of sovereignty – Burma – and pursue an American opening. Either way, Beijing confronts a difficult road ahead.”
William Inboden , Non-Resident Fellow
“In one of history's ironies, Kim Jong-il died in the same week as Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens. The contrast is telling. Kim, one of the most loathsome tyrants of the past century, used his rule to terrorize his own citizens and destabilize his region, all while cultivating a personality cult extreme even by the distorted standards of dictatorship. Havel and Hitchens devoted their lives to the cause of human liberty, and were eloquent scourges of tyranny in all its perverse forms. As the world looks anxiously at Pyongyang's leadership transition, one hopes that somewhere in Asia the heirs of Havel and Hitchens will emerge, and will raise their voices on behalf of freedom for the North Korean people.”
Amy Studdart, Asia Program Associate, who last week visited Beijing to discuss North Korea with Chinese analysts (Brussels)
“For the past few years, China and the United States have been united by a common approach to North Korea: avoiding trouble. This was not at odds with Kim Jong-il’s only interest - the continuation of his regime. It was an arrangement of inaction driven by a fear that there was too much at stake to rock the boat, and a lack of incentives on the part of any actor to take the risk. That confluence was always going to make for a short term arrangement, however, and with the death of Kim Jong-il, the short term is over. As the world’s youngest dictator takes over its most enduring dictatorship, we can anticipate a new period of uncertainty in North East Asia.”
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (www.gmfus.org) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to the Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw.