September 10, 2008
By Peter Brookes
News reports that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il has had a
stroke could certainly be true. At 66, he's no spring chicken,
especially considering his reportedly colorful lifestyle.
In fact, every few years, news of Kim's incapacitation - or
death - makes the rounds, based on intelligence, rumor or even the
reading of tea leaves. Sorting fact from fiction is a challenge
when dealing with the ultrasecretive North Koreans.
But if he is really ill, there are much bigger questions at hand
for the United States - ones that go well beyond the routine
passing of another world leader.
So, what do we think we know?
First, Kim hasn't been seen in public for about a month,
including a very conspicuous absence yesterday from a fanciful
parade in the capital, Pyongyang, commemorating the 60th
anniversary of the communist state.
(Since the "Dear Leader" is so inaccessible to outsiders, teams
of North Korea-watchers in our country, South Korea and elsewhere
follow his every public appearance closely to check his health and
see who's in - or out - of favor among the elite.)
Some have even speculated that the parade and rally, which
likely included as many as 100,000 people, was muted a bit over
past years, perhaps due to the strongman's absence or illness.
Intelligence agencies have speculated that Kim may suffer from
diabetes and heart disease - and might even have had open-heart
surgery at some point. He was a drinker and smoker, but some
believe he's sworn off those habits.
Second, a team of Chinese doctors has supposedly been sent to
Pyongyang to attend to Kim - or another senior official. (Kim
clearly doesn't trust North Korean medicine; he's often relied on
outsiders, including the Germans, for his care.)
But, whatever Kim's health today, he is (like the rest of us)
going to go at some time - which brings up larger
For instance, who will succeed him? He has three sons from two
different wives and a half-brother. While Kim was groomed for
leadership by his father, Kim Il Sung, he has no clear
heir-apparent of his own. (Indeed, his oldest son is in disrepute
after being busted sneaking into Japan on a forged passport to take
his kids to Tokyo's Disneyland.)
Of course, a family member isn't the only possible successor.
The military - or factions of the Korean People's Army (KPA) - may
well try to step in to fill the power vacuum if Kim becomes
incapacitated or dies.
The KPA is generally believed to hold belligerent views, so a
military coup could lead to serious provocations against (or even
conflict with) South Korea and the United States - even Japan.
And what about the nukes? North Korea has been a confirmed
nuclear-weapons state for almost two years now, with an arsenal of
an indeterminate size. Under whose lock and key would those weapons
come if the Stalinist regime collapsed?
There's also the possibility of instability, including
warlordism among KPA factions. If that develops, should the United
States and South Korea move north of the DMZ to intervene to
stabilize the situation?
And what of China? It certainly has a vested interest in
neighboring North Korea. Beijing could move across the border into
a fray, putting US, South Korean and Chinese troops eyeball to
While Kim may - or may not - be ill, these are certainly
important questions that we (and our allies) need to consider now,
not after the announcement of his death.
Heritage Foundation senior fellow Peter Brookes is a former
deputy assistant secretary of Defense.
First Appeared in the New York Post
NEWS reports that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il has had a stroke could certainly be true. At 66, he's no spring chicken, especially considering his reportedly colorful lifestyle.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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