Kim Jong Il Passes Away - 5 Key Questions from Now to April 2012

Geoffrey is a Director at Choson Exchange, a non-profit focused on economics, business and legal training in North Korea. Contact him at or Andray Abrahamian, Director, External and Media Relations at

5 days ago, our team was talking to our North Korean partners about economic policy training programs. 3 days ago, Kim Jong Il was shown visiting a music center in North Korean whose co-owner is a friend of ours. Today, Kim Jong Il was announced to have passed away. Some initial thoughts of ours for the period between now and April 2012 (a key milestone):

What Should We Expect in the Coming Weeks?

• Expect a short-term and immediate lockdown in North Korea with restrictions on travel and communications as authorities move to stabilize the situation in preparation for mourning. • While many are proclaiming instability and provocations as the next phase, the immediate situation at this point will mainly be images of sobbing North Koreans as elites attempt to present a unified front to external parties even if internally things are very different. • Watch for the funeral committee – the order on the list has significance in terms of people’s political position in this immediate period (but will matter a lot less as the political situation evolves over the year).

What will the political re-ordering look like?

• Factional re-ordering will happen behind the scenes. This process will create winners and losers. • Most pundits believe that Kim Jong Eun has not had enough time to prepare to lead, but so far, it appears that a protocol is in place with KCNA rapidly identifying Kim Jong Eun as the rallying point for the nation in its announcement, and a funeral community organized with Kim Jong Eun as its head. • We should be keeping an eye out for the individual movements such as the immediate roles North Korea’s power couple Jang Sung Taek and Kim Kyong Hui take. • At the institutional level, we should be keeping an eye out for the role of the National Defense Commission in the medium term as this is the governing institution Kim Jong Il put in place and it delineated the chain of command in a country where most institutions do not communicate horizontally with each other.

When (or If )Kim Jong Eun Will Make His Trip to China?

• Watch out for a potential Kim Jong Eun trip to China at some point after the mourning period is over. This trip will be important for several reasons. • China is North Korea’s most important sponsor and who leads and who goes on this trip will say a lot about the political order in North Korea. • A trip by North Korea’s next leader will indicate that the internal situation has stabilized and that the leader is confident enough that a coup will not take place in his absence.

How Will North Korea Become “Strong and Prosperous” Now?

• Keep in mind that North Korea propaganda calls 2012 the year they will become a “strong and prosperous” nation – this official transition is planned for April 2012 when Kim Il Sung celebrates his 100th birthday, setting a somewhat hard deadline for North Korea for mourning as it strives to present a unified front and an upbeat message by that time period. • This is particularly important as Kim Jong Eun is presented as drawing legitimacy more from Kim Il Sung than Kim Jong Il. • This will push North Korea to reach out to a variety of countries as it attempts to present developments in external relations as part of an upbeat message for April.

What Are the Next Steps?

• Even if North Korea is more active in reaching out, it could also paradoxically be harder to reach an agreement (especially one that is adhered to) while the internal situation is in flux. • But it is important for countries to reach out early and aggressively with variety of programs and opportunities to offer a new generation of leadership an “open path” to positive change. • It will also be easier for leaders in the US and South Korea to reach an agreement with North Korea unburdened by the presence of Kim Jong Il.