The initial reaction to the news amongst my coworkers, as I sit here in Seoul, is of fear and trepidation. Not one of celebration as you might expect. Nobody is jumping for joy, no-one is cheering. Instead, as we sat down for lunch together, people ate solemnly.
It's not that they will miss the hugely unpopular figurehead of the North but of the uncertainty that change brings. South Korea pulsates and everything here is instant, its super fast internet to its high speed trains, the news feels like a hammer. Unexpected and dramatic with no warning.
Like many the news makes you forecast the future. There are innumerable possibilities but judging how the death of Kim Il-Sung played out and the transfer of power to his son we can take a guess at possible outcomes.
Firstly it was announced on North Korean television that the nation would begin a period of mourning. It's not the first time. In 1994 when Kim Il-Sung died (the eternal President) the nation went into a similar period. Each sector of work, every school, each hospital would pay their respects to the beloved leader and weep and yelp. There was genuine dismay and an outpouring of emotion for a popular leader then. Although some faked scenes of sadness in order not to be reported to state police it is still considered that Kim Il-Sung was highly regarded.
His son however, Kim Jong-Il, had less popularity. More defectors than ever before flee the reclusive state because of mismanagement and abuses by him and his party. The cult of personality is still strong but with famine and disease rife in the country will the reaction be the same as his father?
Those loyal to the party live in Pyongyang so I'd expect the capital to follow the mourning procedures without any hint of resistance. The outlying cities however and the vast ignored swathes of people could indeed spark an uprising. It could be an event that proves a catalyst to reject the party and try to force reform but it would need to happen from outside of the party's base of power in Pyongyang.
The intended successor to Kim Jong-Il is likely to be his son; Kim Jong Eun. However there are many complications with this succession. Namely he has only really been groomed for the role in the last 12 months or so and is still at a young age, reportedly under 30. Both Korea's have a basis of Confucianism that respects age and that is something Kim Jong Eun does not have in abundance so his grasp on power might not be tight enough to sustain a peaceful accession to become the new leader.
Interestingly he does have older siblings but they were not seen as responsible candidates to take over the nation. It's not just the population that might be hesitant but also within the party ranks. The army itself is very powerful and older figures inside of the army may take a dislike to the 'new kid on the block'. It's a possibility that if he does take over and tries to enact unpopular policies then a coup'd'etat could occur.
It is entirely possible that nothing will change. After all the party controls the media and in such a reclusive state that has been engulfed with propaganda for over 50 years it is viable that the people cannot even consider another option. With so little interaction with neighboring countries and the inability to follow world events they simply cannot come to their own conclusions over the countries future and accept what they are fed by the government. South Korea, although it's natural enemy, is extremely unlikely to attack. The ROK doesn't not want to de-stabilise the nation and cause unrest with China, something the USA would equally urge against. It's important to also bare in mind the burden that annexing a crippled North Korea would take on the South. The cost and upheaval for reunification is a prevalent worry and a key argument against any sort of action to unify the country.
On a positive note, one that many cannot seem to recognise at the moment is the change could provide a new chapter in North - South relations. Kim Jong Eun, if he does succeed, was reportedly educated in Europe and being of a young age must be aware of the problems that face his country. Those who met Kim Jong-Il suggested he was very aware of world events so I'd be surprised if his son was not equally informed as he's likely to be more exposed than his father after spending time abroad. The son could usher in renewed talks and agreements even eventually in the long-term agreeing to a peaceful reunification free of civil war or skirmishes. His age might prompt him to be more open and free up the hermit kingdom to foreign investment and travel.
There are demonstrations for unification by passionate supporters who call for the Korea's to be joined once more but this feeling is not felt by all. Such dramatic news has sent shockwaves and worry throughout the nation and with so many endless possibilities we simply have to wait and see what transpires. It's a complex issue with so many pitfalls that could make the situation spiral out of control. North Korea is often pushed back, hidden away, from the collective conscious. Like an awkward memory or situation, it's easier to ignore it. Now though, each Korean has to deal with the fact that change could be coming whether it be perilous or peaceful, nobody is certain.Suggest a correction