Unknown territoryRecent photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il published around the world the other day evoked many thoughts. Kim was attending the 15th anniversary of the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, at the Pyongyang Sports Center on Thursday. Korean Central Television, the North Korean broadcaster, covered the event, showing us that Kim looked very frail and weak. His hair is thinner and the right side of his mouth points upward, making his face look off-kilter.
When entering the arena, he seemed to limp, giving the impression of a man more incapacitated than when we saw him three months ago. Watching the footage, you can’t help but wonder how ill he really is and what his future prognosis must be.
He seems to be suffering from the side effects of a stroke or a metabolic disease such as diabetes or a kidney disease, but experts say it is hard to say only from these photos. What is certain, however, is these photographs and video footage show that Kim is not the same lively person whom we saw in the summit meetings with South Korean leaders in 2000 and 2007.
When it comes to the natural course of life, the North Korean leader is not an exception. We have to remind ourselves that his deteriorated condition could lead to an unexpected change.
Many experts and commentators have linked the recent provocations carried out by the North to an apparent transfer of power to one of Kim’s sons. The second nuclear test and the missile launches have come when Kim’s health is clearly not in good shape.
The problem is that there must be many factions in North Korea who are increasingly worried about the security of their country. Under a dictatorship like North Korea’s, the death or absence of Kim will lead to problems, many of which we cannot predict. We will all be entering into unknown territory.
If Kim’s health remains problematic, it is likely there will be a struggle between the people most likely to take power. The chances of instability are very high, and this could lead to a level of volatility no one wants to see.
This is why we need to be prepared for all possible scenarios. The government must prepare the most effective way to respond, consulting not only with the United States but also other countries. Only detailed, thorough preparations can turn a challenge into an opportunity.