Before sending their condolences to North Korea on the December 17 death of Kim Jong Il, Japan’s senior ministers held an emergency security meeting–an obvious indication that the dictator’s death gave them reason to worry.
Worry about what, exactly? That’s the thing. Since North Korea is such a secretive state, it’s hard to get accurate, unbiased information about the country’s internal affairs and, therefore, hard to know what, exactly, to be concerned about.
We know that Kim Jong Il’s death from a heart attack was reported by North Korea’s state-run media on December 17. We know that he had picked his third son, Kim Jung Eun, as his successor. Most North Korea-watchers agree that Kim Jong Eun and his advisors are working quickly to consolidate his power.
Apart from his new job title, estimated age (mid- to late-twenties), attendance at a Swiss boarding school and his preference for all-black ensembles, though, we know little else about Kim Jong Eun. His personality, politics and advisors are unknown, as is the future he envisions for North Korea.
A few more known facts about North Korea make this murky power transition reason for Japan to worry. In 2009, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan, earning itself a UN condemnation. In the 1970s and 1980s, it kidnapped Japanese civilians to aid its spy program; at least five abductees remain unaccounted for. And North Korea has nuclear weapons that, in theory, could reach Japan. If provoked, North Korea could do some damage here, but nobody seems to know what Kim Jong Eun thinks of Japan nor how easily provoked he is.
This was all, no doubt, on Prime Minister Noda’s mind as he paid an official visit to China on December 25 and 26, because there’s one more thing we know about North Korea: China is its closest ally in Asia. Unlike Japan, China maintains diplomatic relations with North Korea. It chairs a six-nation forum on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and is the country’s biggest trading partner. If any nation is in a position to pressure North Korea to play nice with Japan, it’s China.
The good news: China, like Japan, seems to be interested in maintaining stability and peace in Asia during North Korea’s power transition. According to NHK, the Chinese foreign ministry summoned the Russian, Japanese, American and South Korean ambassadors after Kim Jong Il’s death to ask them to refrain from provoking Pyongyang. It’s certainly in China’s best interests to maintain stability in North Korea–any turmoil there could lead to an influx of refugees into China–but China’s interest in a stable North Korea is good news for the rest of Asia.
The (sort of) bad news: since Japan has very limited ability to influence North Korea directly, it will have to appeal to China to advocate on its behalf should North Korea start acting disagreeably towards Japan. Since it’s really anyone’s guess how things will go in North Korea as Kim
Jong Eun takes power, Japan’s best insurance policy is to cozy up to China. Assuming Japan is able to improve its fraught relationship with China, though, it will be buying influence on North Korea at the cost of its ability to be assertive with China.
Who knows, maybe it will all work out. Kim Jong Eun could turn out to be an admirable statesman who eschews nuclear chest-thumping for diplomacy, in which case Japan and China could carry in with their territorial disputes and World War II resentment. If Kim Jong Eun turns out to be a troublemaker, though, (silver lining!) he might end up bringing Japan and China closer.
Compiled by Annamarie Sasagawa