The death of Kim Jong-il, the ‘Dear Leader' of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea, has occurred in a political context very different from 1994, when he succeeded his father, the redoubtable Kim Il-sung. But the international reactions have been comparable. The 69-year-old general secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea died aboard his train on December 17, of a heart attack; he is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008 and was only rarely seen in public thereafter. A joint statement by the party and other key institutions seemed to confirm speculation that Mr. Kim had chosen his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, believed to be under 30 years of age, to succeed him to the top job. It hailed the young Mr. Kim — who, after being made a four-star general in September 2010, was catapulted to the high post of vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission and inducted into the Central Committee of the Workers' party — as the “great successor to the revolution” and the “eminent leader of the military and the people.” How this succession, assuming it will be officially sealed, will be received by party members and the people is uncertain.
The DPRK, with its 23-million population, stands apart from all other socialist states, past and present, through its system of dynastic leadership reinforced by a cult of personality. This time of transition and uncertainty is likely to see a rise in regional tensions. Internationally, the country's closest ally, China, has made the strongest statement, which should end all speculation about Beijing's support for its southern neighbour. Japan, for its part, hopes that “peace and stability” on the Korean peninsula will not suffer. The Republic of Korea, or South Korea, however, has repeated its actions on the death of Kim Il-sung, putting its military on high alert and strengthening intelligence cooperation with the United States. The Obama administration may delay a decision on food aid for the North, and that in turn could affect its informal contacts with Pyongyang and the resumption of the stalled six-party talks on the DPRK's nuclear programme. Everyone recognises that dealing with North Korea and its reclusive leaders on regional and international issues is no easy job. But military grandstanding, conducting provocative naval exercises in the Yellow Sea waters close to the Northern coast, and assuming a hostile political stance, as RoK President Lee Myung-bak has done, is not the intelligent way. The peoples of the region surely deserve better than this.