KJI Dead, Chinese Pres. Refuses to Speak to Pres. Lee, Small Group from South Heads North—What’s Next?

KJI Dead, Chinese Pres. Refuses to Speak to Pres. Lee, Small Group from South Heads North—What’s Next?

December 26, 20116164Views

By John M. Rodgers and Peter Ward


Monday morning, December 26, a small contingent of South Koreans headed north across the DMZ to offer condolences for Kim Jong-il’s death.

The 18-person overnight trip which includes Lee Hee-ho, 90, and widow of late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, and Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun, 56, will not have the group attending Kim’s funeral on December 28. They will offer an official condolence call upon arriving in Pyongyang.

Last Friday, the North demanded that the government in Seoul “show proper respect” for the dear leader’s death, threatening that inter-Korea relations could be irreparably damaged.

Neither the Lee nor Hyun delegation mentioned the possibility of meeting Kim Jong-un, but such a meeting is likely, according to Paik Hak Soon, director of North Korean studies at Seongnam, a South Korea-based Sejong Institute.

Late founder of the Hyundai Group, Chung Ju-yung, herded cattle across the border during a famine in the North in 1998, in a symbolic gesture in favor of reuniting the two Koreas. Late president Kim Dae-jung was part of a historic Pyongyang summit with Kim in 2000, part of his Sunshine Policy.

Following news of Kim Il-sung‘s death in July of 1994, then South Korean President Kim Young-sam didn’t offer condolences to the North Korean leader, only saying at a national security meeting, “I feel regret [over Kim Il-sung’s death].”


Chinese President Hu Jintao is reportedly “refusing to take President Lee Myung-bak’s calls,” according to the Korea JoongAng Daily. In Friday’s editorial the paper stresses the importance of open communication at such a time:

Soon after the official announcement of Kim’s death, Beijing issued a statement saying that ensuring stability on the peninsula should be the top priority. If that were a sincere position, Hu should take Lee’s call, especially as Seoul and Beijing are strategic partners. Such a demonstration of arrogance can only draw resentment toward China from its neighboring countries.

On December 22, the Hankyoreh published a similar editorial but also blamed the Seoul government for worsening relations with Beijing by focusing on ties with Washington writing:

A lot of the blame for relations with Beijing degenerating to this degree of abnormality falls on Seoul. With its emphasis on strengthening diplomatic relations with the US to the exclusion of others, the Lee Myung-bak administration joined in that country’s pressure tactics against China. It would be unreasonable to expect China to be pleased with us for doing so.

Hu’s cold shoulder could, perhaps, be unintentional given South Korean and China foreign ministers made contact on Monday night.  Yet, President Lee has already spoken with leaders in the U.S., Russia and Japan.  Given the stake China has in facilitating a smooth transition of power in Pyongyang–it is surely the closest outside adviser to the fledgling Kim Jong-un–it is intriguing that the South Korean president wasn’t on the list of contacts nor have his calls been received.  As the Hankyoreh says, stability on the peninsula includes both the North and the South and China surely knows this:

There can be no talk of stability on the Korean Peninsula that leaves out South Korea, which is one of the countries on it. If Beijing wants peace and stability on the peninsula, it will need to adopt a more flexible approach, one involving dialogue and cooperation with Seoul.

If this is any sign or intended slap in the face, closing the gap between China and South Korea on the evolving situation in the North looks all the more unlikely and, ultimately, China may be making its first move post-Kim Jong-il to get dibs on the country.


Just after noon today local time, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced that Kim Jong-il had passed away at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, December 17 while aboard his train. The KCNA said the cause of death was fatigue and overwork due to his extensive field guidance tour around the country.  Kim was 69. Reuters reported that the cause of death was a heart attack and state media confirmed that Kim experienced a massive heart attack.

Reportedly the South Korean military has been put on emergency alert while all government officials have been moved to emergency response status by President Lee Myung-bak which prohibits travel or leave and requires officials to stay in round-the-clock contact with offices.

The central government announced that a state funeral will be held on December 28, led by Kim Jong-un, the late Kim’s third son and heir apparent.

South Koreans watching news of Kim's death.

The mood on the ground in South Korea is one of uncertainty—as a more than 4% drop in the local KOSPI showed—as the news came rather unexpectedly given the continued reports in the press that Kim’s health had been vastly improving since his reported stroke in 2008. As citizens go about their busy schedules in the capital of Seoul, there is a sense of what next.  “What will they do now?” asked, Lee Nam-hee, a high school teacher in her mid-40s.  “How can a kid take over a country?” she continued, referring to the youngest Kim.

An emotional North Korean news anchor delivers the news.

Others on the streets and in subway stations, stared at TVs in restaurants and shop windows or into their electronic devices to find out what had happened.  Most seemed to just say,  “What in the world?” or “Really?” as they found out the news which swept across the world after the scheduled noon announcement from the KCNA—many who’d been aware that the announcement was coming expected something related to the 6-party talks.  Just before noon, a local news station interrupted a broadcast to say that the North would be making an “important announcement soon” and then, about two minutes later, came the news of Kim’s death.  South Korea’s YTN news—a kind of Korean CNN—broadcast the KCNA’s live report with a sobbing female anchor delivering the news with mountains in the background.

What Could be Next

What comes next is where it gets very interesting. Successor designate Kim Jong-un is now in the unenviable position of having to preside over his father’s funeral and then attempt to consolidate his grip on power. What follows is seemingly likely to take one of three paths.

Kim Jong-un, with or without the help of his aunt Kim Kyong-hee and her husband Chang Song-taek may succeed in consolidating his power. This might not happen straight away. He may not simply leap into the shoes  of his father and start going on tours of the country, giving disciplinary speeches to the high-level cadres that turn up in the newspaper and be the centre of a fanatical personality cult all of his own. The above mentioned has already begun in the North—he was reported to have gone on tours with his father several times, and has his own (still nascent) personality cult. He may take his time, behind the scenes consolidating his power, whilst in public mourning his father’s passing, much like Kim Jong-il did in the three years after the death of his father.

The second possibility is that he may not become the leader. Like with Lenin’s funeral in 1924, a collective leadership might emerge out of the funeral arranging committee or some other party/state organ. This may include him as a primus inter pares, a respected elder (metaphorically speaking), or as just one among many (though unlikely).  What follows could be very messy—i.e., an open or invisible struggle for power, like we saw in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. We could see a military coup, that might be messy or orderly. What is certain, is that a collective leadership, following the death of a dictator, especially one who presides over a very personalised political system, is not likely to be stable. But it should also be kept in mind that the elite in Pyongyang is conscious of the need to maintain stability to stop an Arab Spring-like rising.

The third possibility is the emergence of a reformist government; we could, though this is highly unlikely, see what happened with the death of Mao. Hua Guofeng was soon pushed out of power and replaced by the reformist Deng Xiaoping. But this raises the question of legitimacy in a regime that is so personalised, the Kim family being the very state itself (as Louis the fourteenth may never had said “I am the State”).

What is likely is that be he a figure head, a successor apparent, understudy of his aunt, or a primus inter pares, Kim Jong-un is likely to be around for a while.

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