There are many surprising things about Kim Jong-il’s sudden death, not the least of which is that it took two days for the rest of the world to hear about it. Yet most surprising is the sanguine reaction of the global and especially the Asian markets. On Monday, or actually Sunday as we now know, the world woke up to its first leaderless nuclear power. Coming as close as anyone could to filling his seat was his youngest son, who is in his late twenties. There’s no way these facts were accurately priced into markets that took just a relatively minor dip as a first response. The news from North Korea appears to have been taken far too lightly, and just a few days out, it’s disappearing from the front pages.
While Kim Jong-un’s status as heir apparent seems to tie a nice bow around the situation, let’s get real for a moment. The son of the elder Kim only appeared on the North Korean stage after a stroke necessitated succession planning in Kim Jong-il’s regime in 2008. Consider that founder of the country Kim Il-sung put his son, Kim Jong-il, in front of the citizenry as his heir for more than a decade before his 1994 death. That decade was precious time; time Kim Jong-il spent consolidating power and putting his own people into high government office— and he was over 50 years old when his father passed away. Kim Jong-un has been deprived of that head start; he’s got to rely on whatever ground his dead father managed to clear for him since his 2008 stroke. A couple of years at his father’s side — and a promotion to four star general — is scant time for the younger Kim to have developed a real plan for ruling, or real allies in government.
That said, don’t expect Kim Jong-un to be deposed. There won’t be a North Korean spring — for real or for show — anytime soon. The country is too backward and too brainwashed to mount any sort of populist opposition to the ruling regime, and its people have little if any knowledge of the outside world. Even if Kim Jong-un proves unable to consolidate and retain power, all that would replace him as the head of state is a military junta or strongman; there’s no democracy on the horizon, given the country’s current sorry state of affairs.
The important relationship to watch going forward will be between North Korea and China. Kim will want to impress his people by letting more food into the markets and increasing their terrible standard of living in whatever marginal way he can. He’ll need cash to do so, and will probably call upon China to help. China is North Korea’s last substantial benefactor in the world. In a classic diplomatic sense, because North Korea is America’s enemy and South Korea is America’s friend, China has little choice but to keep propping up the North. If China changes its tack now, it could find North Korea inching towards reunification with the South, putting a firm American ally right on its border. The question is, will China support Kim Jong-un wholeheartedly, or will it too take a step back and see what emerges from the power struggles sure to be playing out behind the scenes at this very moment?
Meanwhile, the U.S. has taken the right approach to this complicated situation: the White House has decided to sit back, watch and wait. It could, and likely already is, offering behind-the-scenes humanitarian relief to the North Korean people. It should continue to offer any such assistance that it thinks will be accepted. The Obama administration should not by any means be applying diplomatic pressure to restart six party talks or anything else of the sort. In essence, the free world should be rooting for Kim Jong-un to stabilize the country so that it can again try to bring North Korea out of the dark ages in an orderly fashion.
The British SAS used to say that when securing a dangerous environment, you should shoot the first person who makes a move (hostile or otherwise) to ensure authority. While I’m not advocating violence, one has to hope Kim Jong-un can consolidate power sufficiently, so that the world at least knows who it’s dealing with when it comes to North Korea. We don’t know what kind of leader he’ll be, or if he’ll even be a leader for very long, but a country that treats its rulers as gods needs someone at the top of the pyramid to keep from devolving into chaos.
Otherwise, the world is back to where it was the day after Kim Jong-il died — a day in which no one knew whose finger was on the North Korean nuclear button.
Ian Bremmer is a Reuters columnist.