The World from Berlin: 'There Is Little Hope that Anything Will Change'

With the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, an already jittery Asia has been thrown into great uncertainty. Questions over how his successor and son Kim Jong Un might rule abound. German commentators on Tuesday predict that in the interest of stability, the country's neighbors will seek the status quo.

Kim Jong Il's body is displayed at a memorial palace in Pyongyang, North Korea. Zoom
AP

Kim Jong Il's body is displayed at a memorial palace in Pyongyang, North Korea.

The body of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was laid out in a glass casket on Tuesday in Pyongyang as the country mourned his death. His successor and third son Kim Jong Un visited the body at a memorial palace in the capital, accompanied by military and Workers' Party officials for what state media called a "solemn ceremony."

The late communist leader, who state media said was 69, reportedly died of a heart attack sparked by overwork and stress on Saturday. His body, clothed in his typical khaki-colored uniform, was pictured surrounded by "kimjongilia," the red flowers named after the dictator known to his people as the "Dear Leader."

The mausoleum at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace is the same that houses the body of Kim Jong Il's father and North Korea's national founder, Kim Il Sung, on display there since he died in 1994.

Domestic media coverage has shown great masses of mourners weeping in public squares since the communist leader's death was announced on Monday. The country will now honor an 11-day mourning period. Meanwhile state media has fueled praise of successor Kim Jong Un, calling the young man, thought to be in his late 20s, a "lighthouse of hope" and a "great person born of heaven," a phrase formerly used only for his father and grandfather.

But with little known about the young heir to their political dynasty, his father's death has sparked a wave of uncertainty in the tense, heavily-armed region, with Asian markets thrown into turmoil following the announcement. Some worry that Kim Jong Un may not have a firm hold on power, which could destabilize the isolated country, which has still not sworn off nuclear weapons.

The South Korean military has been placed on high alert, concerned about what the large armed forces in their northern neighbor might do. South Korean officials have not scheduled a visit to pay their respects to Kim Jong Il, though the country did express its condolences for the people of North Korea.

Aggression Feared

There are worries that the leader's death after 17 years in power could prompt his inexperienced son to test his strength militarily. The United States and other countries are also concerned that their work to persuade North Korea to give up plans for a nuclear weapon could go to waste.

Disarmament talks between the US and North Korea had been expected to resume soon, and the US was ready to announce food aid in exchange for an agreement to stop uranium enrichment there, unnamed sources told news agency AP. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington that the situation was "evolving," but added that both countries "share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea as well as ensuring regional peace and stability."

Neighboring countries Japan and China also have a great interest in the country's continued stability, and experts have suggested they ought to cooperate with the US to prevent potential crises, though China, a strategic ally of North Korea, has rejected this in the past.

China's ruling Communist Party's Central Committee on Monday welcomed Kim Jong Un as a new leader, while a Foreign Ministry spokesperson on Tuesday issued a vaguely worded open invitation to the country's "leadership," intentionally using a word that could be interpreted in the singular or plural.

Some analysts have expressed optimism that Kim Jong Il's death could provide an opportunity for his son, who reportedly studied in Switzerland, to open North Korea to the outside world.

On Tuesday German editorialists speculated on what the transition will mean for both North Korea and its neighbors. Though they all agree that iron-fisted Kim Jong Il will not be missed, there is anxiety about the region's uncertain future:

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"The death of Kim Jong Il is good news, just as the deaths of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin or Saddam Hussein were all good news. … But that doesn't mean that the situation for the North Koreans will now improve. Already the next Kim stands ready to take the office he has inherited from his father and grandfather. East Asia faces months and perhaps years of turbulence. The leader, not even 30 years old, is not sitting securely in the saddle. … Thus he will attempt to prove his tenacity to the military by operating aggressively both within and without."

"The Americans and the world should outstretch their hands and offer the inexperienced Kim Jong Un a way out of international isolation, similar to Burma where this approach seems to be working. At the same time the world should prepare itself for what is more likely -- a series of North Korean provocations meant to close the ranks inside the country. … There is little hope that anything will change under the new Kim."

Financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"All of North Korea's neighbors have their reasons to inconspicuously ensure that the population in the isolated country are provided with the bare essentials and that the leadership remains stable. That, above all, is what allowed Kim Jong Il to continue taunting the world for so long. … Because it's clear to the government leaders (in the US and South Korea) that punitive actions would be not only a military risk, but could also potentially damage the economy of the region. In these precarious times, no one wants to risk that."

"Domestically it is harder to estimate the political situation for the 30-ish young man. From the outside it's impossible to say how securely Kim's son sits in power. He must first prove how powerful he will be without the protection of his father. At the same time, China has traditionally been one of North Korea's closest allies. … Despite all the uncertainty, some Chinese diplomats are still cautiously optimistic. The elder Kim repeatedly showed a fascination with China's development, including last year when meeting with Chinese leader Hu Jintao …who emphasized that economic prosperity was impossible without opening up internationally."

"But Kim was obviously suffering too many health problems to go this route himself. The hope in Beijing is that his son, who after all lived in Switzerland for a few years, will bring a great understanding for the Chinese way of economic openness. Beijing would support him in this. But that won't be enough if he can't implement it in his own country."

The center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Kim Jong Il, the now dead dictator, will not be missed. He held his people in slavery and was responsible for the deaths of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. … But his worst crime was that he created a system of bondage that also laid claim to the minds of the people. Many generations of North Koreans live in the dark -- and they have no idea."

"As long as the regime maintains power over the brains of the people, and as long as it controls the flow of information, then the system can theoretically survive. … This is the actual legacy of Kim Jong Il: He ruled what is perhaps the last truly totalitarian state in the modern world. Every other oppressor -- of whom this world has enough -- can't corral the drive for freedom. But North Korea doesn't have this drive. North Korea's protecting power now has the historic opportunity to break open the shell and possibly lead an orderly transition. The tides of history would take care of the rest."

The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"North Korea is the world's most bizarre combination of Stalinism, dynastic succession and cult of personality, along with presumed atomic weapons and real hunger problems. But to simply discount the late Kim Jong Il as a 'crazy with the Bomb' misjudges the situation. Three US presidents were stymied by Kim. George W. Bush, who never wanted to accept a North Korean atomic weapon and threatened to implement 'regime change,' even sent aid. Kim Jong Il was prepared to let his people starve and his region descend into chaos if it meant he could hold onto power. Even South Korea felt that stability in the form of a Kim dictatorship was preferable to an implosion or explosion in the north. North Korea is a buffer state between powerful neighbors who don't trust each other. Kim is the lesser evil for both."

"Kim's son will initially be busy consolidating his power. As such, no reforms are to be expected soon. The recently restarted dialogue with the US will also likely not be initially pursued. Should Kim face problems internally, there is the risk of a military adventure -- the 'test' of a short-range missile on Monday was a warning. This regime can only be removed or reformed with great risks. The tragedy for the people of North Korea will likely continue for some time."

Center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"When Kim Il Sung died in 1994, his son Kim Jong Il was ready to take over. He had been designated the successor many years previous and had the opportunity prior to his father's death to solidify his power. None of that is true of Kim Jong Un. He isn't even 30 years old yet and as such cannot present any great achievements. In addition, he was only presented to the public as his father's successor last year; he has had little time to build up his own network. But in a system like that in North Korea, such networks are vital. There have, to be sure, been many changes in many levels of leadership in recent months. But the successor can in no way be considered secure."

"As such, one cannot expect Kim Jong Un to be prominent in the near future. Behind him will be the real holders of power. Their worldview will determine whether North Korea's isolation will begin to slowly evaporate. One cannot rule out power struggles in the country's leadership. They could be bloody."

-- Kristen Allen, with wires

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