Jim Hoare: Reform would open the son to the charge of betrayal

The elite is aware of the Middle East and will ensure there is no North Korean spring

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The death of the North Korean leader should not have been a surprise. Kim's illness in 2008, probably a stroke, which took him out of the public eye for several months, left him a shadow of his former self.

The moves last year to bring forward his third son, the European-educated Kim Jong-un, as his successor pointed to concern about the future, but there seemed no sense of urgency. And yet, when the news came, there was a sense of shock. Asian stock markets fell: not a reflection of North Korea's financial importance but of the fear of the security threat that it is thought to pose to the region. South Korea put its military on alert and President Obama set out to reassure South Korea that the United States will continue to provide protection.

Salacious stories swirled around Kim Jong-il, yet those who met him found, in former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's words, "a man with whom one can do business".

What little we know about Kim Jong-un largely derives from the memoirs of his father's sushi chef. Given his age and his lack of experience, he seems unlikely to be able to impose his views, whatever they are, on those around him. And the instinct in the short term will be to continue things as before. For Kim Jong-un to do anything else would be to leave himself open to the charge that he was betraying his legacy.

Sudden changes might cause dissent within the leadership, and the leadership knows that dissent leads to problems. Ordinary North Koreans may know little about the Middle East but the élite do, and will do all they can to make sure there is no North Korean spring.

World leaders have said Kim's death provides an opportunity for change, but they have hardly got off on the right track. Few have offered condolences. Others have concentrated on the problems and the dangers.

 

Jim Hoare was British chargé d'affaires in North Korea in 2001-02. He now writes about Korea, and teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies

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