Insights and Analysis

North Korea: Waiting, for Kim Jong Il

September 17, 2008

By Scott Snyder

Since there have been periodic rumors about the state of Kim Jong Il’s health over the years, it’s easy for North Korea-watchers to become skeptical about unattributed reports from capitals outside of Pyongyang regarding the pulse of the Dear Leader. It has long been the case that rumors about the stability of North Korea are inversely proportional to the distance one is from Pyongyang; by this logic, rumors started in Washington require special skepticism.

But this time, multiple reports from intelligence officials in many countries are beginning to add up. These reports suggest that Kim Jong Il experienced an impossible-to-predict “medical event”–apparently a stroke–in mid-August. But it was particularly his non-appearance at last week’s 60th anniversary events to mark the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that sparked international speculation. Intelligence regarding special teams of physicians that had entered North Korea to treat Kim Jong Il has led to a broad array of reports about Kim’s condition and recovery.

Among the various favored scenarios circulating prior to August, there were precious few that envisioned a protracted transition to a post-Kim Jong Il regime or imagined the complications that might stem from the ambiguity surrounding such a slow-motion transition. Barring the actual loss of clear political control, the default response from the international community will be to wait and watch for signs of political transition, then deal with Kim’s successors once they have established political control in Pyongyang.

Current rumors also suggest that some time may pass before the remaining issues surrounding implementation of the February 13, 2007, and October 3, 2007, agreements get resolved. In particular, the DPRK has not yet accepted the draft verification protocol tabled at the last round of Six Party Talks in July. Whether there will be agreement on the terms of the protocol before the end of the Bush administration remains to be seen.

The prospect of a protracted leadership transition is a reminder that the next administration will inherit substantial unfinished business with North Korea, including the urgent task of securing full implementation of North Korea’s denuclearization in return for diplomatic normalization, as envisioned by the September 19, 2005, Six Party Joint Statement.

Waiting for the political situation to clarify brings to mind the novel Waiting, by Ha Jin. I believe it provides the clearest insight into the human drama that average North Koreans must be facing during this time of transition, when an old system of political controls erodes, and begins to be replaced by a chaotic, market-based system in which one’s skill at predatory capitalism shapes prospects for human survival.

Waiting is a love story that takes place in Northern China during the height of the cultural revolution. A doctor, separated from his wife from an arranged marriage, annually petitions the local magistrate for divorce. The doctor has fallen in love with a nurse who works in the same hospital compound, and he wants to marry her. But political surveillance is so strict that even a nightly walk together around the hospital compound carries great risk if colleagues report unacceptable behavior. Years pass and political controls are loosened, but despite greater personal freedoms, the couple still walks the same path inside the compound, and colleagues no longer take notice. A wrenching lack of adjustment to greater social freedom that accompanies economic reforms and carries deep human costs. Individual victimization occurs in such an environment where social conventions are either in transition or have disappeared altogether.

This type of social transition is well underway in North Korea. Although the pace of the transition may be influenced by Kim Jong Il’s condition and longevity, the transition itself is inexorable, and brings with it an incredible human drama that will inevitably include seemingly random victimization and personal tragedies. It is the only path that can ultimately lead to reform and the prospect of greater personal freedom and opportunity for the North Korean people. Still, it gives pause for reflection, and reminds us that the incredibly difficult task of post-transition social stabilization and reconstruction in North Korea lies ahead.

Scott Snyder is a Senior Associate at The Asia Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Korea
Related topics: Center for U.S.-Korea Policy, North Korea


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