Post-Kim Jong-il, India will need to take a cue from Pyongyang's well-wishers in crafting its stance.
The news of the demise of North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il has taken the world by surprise. There were persistent reports about a stroke in 2008 and ill health, but the end in a train on the morning of December 17 was rather sudden. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announcement that the undisputed leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) passed away “from a great mental and physical strain” is, to say the least, intriguing.
Confronted by ill-health, Kim Jong-il had chosen his third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor in September 2010 and he was appointed the Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers' Party and also a 4 star General at the age of 27.
Kim Jong-un has now been named the Chairman of the Funeral Committee declaring to the world his pre-eminent position in the ruling regime and has inherited the mantle of his father as well as the grandfather and founder of the DPRK, the late Kim Il-sung.
Even in a One Party State, power is shared at the levels below the helmsman. To keep the edifice intact, Kim Jong-un would need the full support of both the Workers Party of Korea — the name the ruling communist party in the country goes by — and the military. Kim Jong-un is young, inexperienced and has not had sufficient time to establish chains of loyal apparatchiks reaching out to all the regional and sectoral power sectors. In contrast, his father Kim Jong-il was designated political heir in 1974 at the age of 33, and was by the side of his father for 20 years till the death of the elder Kim in 1994. Jang Song-thaek, Vice Chairman of the National Defence Commission and, more importantly, the husband of Kim Jong-il's sister, Kim Kyong-hui, is expected to be the mentor to Kim Jong-un, till he cements his grip on the Workers' Party. Unflinching support of the Armed Forces to Kim Jong-un is expected through Defence Minister Kim Yong-chun, who was reportedly an aide to late Ko Yong-hi, third wife of Kim Jong-il and mother of Kim Jong-un. Defence Minister Kim is high in the DPRK hierarchy and had accompanied the late Kim Jong-il to China in May 2010 and to the Russian far east in August 2011.
For the North Korean masses, Kim Jong-il, was more than a leader. For generations of people in the cloistered country, he was a father figure, protector of their sovereignty and provider of both security and livelihood. He embodied the people, nation as well as the party. People are shocked and distraught but seek comfort in the knowledge that the torch has been safely passed on from the ‘Dear Leader' to ‘Great Successor.'
The outpouring of grief by different sections of DPRK society is being splashed in the media. However, the mourning would be carefully orchestrated. According to reports, Pyongyang may not accept participation of foreign delegations at the funeral on December 28. This would be in keeping with the isolationist behaviour of the Hermit Kingdom.
India will adopt a wait and watch attitude and will be closely panning the reactions of North Korea's near neighbours, especially China, Russia, Japan and South Korea as well as the statements emanating from Washington. On the most ticklish issue of them all — Pyongyang walking out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to become a nuclear weapons state — India has expressed its hope of a nuclear weapons free Korean Peninsula. India this year was offered access to North Korea's countryside when its contribution to the World Food Programme was distributed among the people. With Pyongyang signalling confidence in India by allowing its diplomats to see the conditions first hand, India is likely to wait for North Korea's well-wishers in the neighbourhood before clearly stating its stand under a new leader.
(Skand Tyal served as India's Ambassador in Seoul till recently.)