Kim Jong-il’s indisposition, exposed by his absence from the totalitarian state’s 60th anniversary parade, should not have surprised Washington. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington and Far Eastern sources report that from late July, Beijing warned the Americans, notably in sessions with the US envoy on nuclear negotiations with North Korea, that it was time to get together to discuss the future of the regime in Pyongyang and make plans for a new ruler.
The Chinese never referred specifically to Kim's illness as the cause of their concern. US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and most of the officials dealing with the rogue Pyongyang government interpreted Beijing’s veiled approaches as motivated by the wish to pre-empt rumors that North Korea was backing away from its commitment to denuclearize and preparing to reactivate the Yongbyon site.
In fact, Chinese officials were obliquely drawing attention to the North Korean ruler’s state of health as a factor destined to influence both the country’s future and the fate of the nuclear accords he signed.
Although “Dear Leader’s” passing – or even his ill health – are not confirmed, many eyes are watching to see which way the wind in Pyongyang is blowing.
Most well-informed sources in Seoul with access to intelligence input have told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that they do not foresee the country collapsing or sinking into a bloody power struggle after his passing. Neither do they share the general assessment in the West and Japan that Kim’s death as sole ruler of North Korea will bring the reclusive country to collapse.
China‘s stake in post-Kim stability
Above all, there are many elements, internal and external, with an interest in keeping North Korea politically stable.
Its generals know that the ruling class in Pyongyang will not permit a violent power struggle because infighting would be mutually destructive and betray the nation’s “shared destiny.”
Cui Zhiying, director of the Korean Peninsula Research Office associated with Shanghai’s Tongji University, is quoted as emphasizing China’s stake in North Korean stability. An upheaval in Pyongyang would send refugees fleeing into Northeast China, bringing with them their Korean identity. With the Tibet issue at the forefront of international protest, ethnic uprisings are a sensitive issue for China which has 55 ethnic minorities.
Many sources dismiss the notion of Chinese intervention in the North after Kim’s death. Beijing will prefer to stay within the six-nation framework for nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang, they say.
Whether or not the shadowy new rulers of North Korea and its nuclear and missile assets will be there is a big question.
Military and political figures within the regime have been preparing for a leadership change for years. They are described in knowledgeable quarters as capable of managing the country as well or even better than Kim and preparing for an untroubled transition of power.
Their faces are masked by typical North Korean mystification. There are signs that they may seek to re-activate Kim’s nuclear weapons program instead of endorsing his consent to dismantle it. But no one can tell for sure.