I was driving near Taupo when I heard the news about Kim Jong Il's sudden death, and missed turning off. Perversely you might think, I have a relationship with the DPRK, given it is the most totalitarian regime the world has ever seen - and know people there. I studied it extensively in the 1990s and travelled there. I am overwhelmingly joyous about his passing, but am thinking a lot about those who I know are there and who are looking for reform to come, knowing there must be change. However, I am going to be driven nuts by reporters who are going to get a lot wrong about the place.
Let's get some points clear:
1. Kim Jong Il was 70 NOT 69. He was actually born in 1941 in the Soviet Union, not 1942 on "sacred" Mt. Paektu whilst his father was leading the liberation from the Japanese. The 1942 birth year is a fabrication which appeared in the 1970s in publications. The sole reason was to match his father, Kim Il Sung's, birth year of 1912. So when Kim Il Sung turned 60, Kim Jong Il turned 30 etc etc. The point of his birth in the USSR (near Khabarovsk I believe) is that Kim Il Sung had fled to the country due to the Japanese takeover, along with his mother Kim Jong Suk (who died in 1949 under circumstances that have multiple versions).
2. Kim Jong Un is expected to succeed him, but reality is likely to be quite different. There is a significant power struggle about to happen (there was one when Kim Il Sung died as his second wife, Kim Song Ae sought to overthrow Kim Jong Il), and the list of members of the National Funeral Committee is very significant (see article here). Kim Jong Un leads the list, number two is the rather elderly Chairman of the Supreme People's Assembly Kim Yong Nam, Choe Yong Rim is third, and is Prime Minister and an ally of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. Those two are close allies and expected to ensure Kim Jong Un leads. Ri Yong Ho is number four, and is effectively now de-jure head of the military as a whole, and his ability to ensure loyalty to Kim Jong Un is likely to be critical. At 69 he is not too old to achieve that, but his name will be one to watch. Kim Yong-Chun is alongside him and may be expected to be a challenger as head of the army.
3. Kim Jong Il's closest living relative is his sister Kim Kyong Hui, the most powerful woman in the country. She may well seek to shadow Kim Jong Un because she is sole remaining issue of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Suk. Kim Jong Il's half sibling Kim Pyong Il is not listed in the funeral committee, and was reportedly in Pyongyang earlier year because his mother- Kim Il Sung's second wife Kim Son Ae, is terminally ill. He may seek to challenge Kim Jong Un, but has not be around in the country sufficiently to do so. Kim Pyong Il and Kim Kyong Hui are the two people best placed to mount a civilian challenge of the leadership.
4. North Korea is not as isolated as it once was. The elite have mobile phones and are extensively aware of life in the outside world, with DVDs, CDs and other material circulating among the ruling classes. Yet, the mass of the population do not have a clue, and may think the world is mourning with them. They haven't the slightest clue of the wealth prosperity and freedom of South Korea. Internet access is not available to anyone except a tiny elite, satellite TV is only available to that elite and in three hotels in Pyongyang, and it is a crime to own a radio that can receive foreign broadcasts.
5. He died TWO DAYS AGO, which is astonishing. It is telling that so much time passed compared to news of the death of his father. Kim Jong Un will have sought to ensure he was not directly threatened. However, it will be far more interesting in coming months.
The latest report is that the country is under curfew, under actual visible martial law.
If you want the most useful coverage of events then you will find it hard to beat the following sites:
- Daily NK - Providing the most regular, up to date and informed coverage of events. In English, but originally Korean. If you use any single source to follow events in coming weeks, use this.
- North Korea Econ Watch - Russian academic Andrei Lankov's excellent blog on events in the DPRK, with many sources of those who do business, travel and visit there. Lankov is one of the world's leading DPRK watchers, with some fluency in Korean, as well as English and Russian, and a long history of visiting the place over many years.
- North Korea Leadership Watch - Self explanatory blog by Michael Madden, includes a great Kim Jong Il family tree
North Korea's own state monopoly news agency (no others allowed, absolutely no free speech or independent media or publishing of any kind) the Korean Central News Agency is here in English.
North Korea's international radio station, Voice of Korea in English
More will be added in coming days
UPDATE 1: No foreign delegations allowed to Kim Jong Il funeral or for mourning. Big questions regarding existing Western tour groups in the country.
UPDATE 2: TV3's Nightline coverage (New Zealand) is sloppy. First, Kim Jong Il has NOT been the "Dear Leader" for over 10 years, but rather "Leader". Secondly, the "military first" policy (Songun) is not "60 years old". It dates from 1995 although is claimed to have arisen in 1961.
UPDATE 3: Daily NK is clearly managing to get unofficial reports from the DPRK presumably through a mix of sources. Markets closed, night curfews, people prohibited for being outside. Particular issues in the town of Musan.