Kim Jong-il’s Death Draws Major Reactions in Asia
The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il this week provoked a variety of reactions across the globe. Kim Jong-un, the late Kim’s third son, will succeed his father. In this post, we examine reactions to Kim’s death from Asia and what it means for North Korea’s future.
Given Japan’s proximity and interest in the Korean peninsula, reactions were markedly heightened. Many speculated on what the post-Kim era might mean for Japanese interests in the region.
Kim’s death triggered a flurry of responses from Japanese government officials, who emphasized their hope for continued stability while monitoring developments on the Korean peninsula:
- Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in Washington on Monday and agreed to “closely monitor the situation and coordinate closely with each other by sharing information between Tokyo and Washington, and among Japan, the United States and South Korea.”
- In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and President Barack Obama also confirmed the need to make concerted efforts to secure stability on the Korean Peninsula. Noda told reporters that Japan “hopes that Kim’s death has no negative impact on peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.”
- Finance Minister Jun Azumi instructed officials to examine potential economic fallout from the development in North Korea, warning that “we need to prepare for any contingencies.“
- Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura stated that Japanese intelligence had not detected any “worrying changes” in the configuration of North Korea’s military that would affect Japan’s national security, but that he would keep a careful eye on the situation in Pyongyang.
- Urging a continued policy of “dialogue and pressure,” former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stated that he hopes North Korea “respects the opinion of the international community as much as possible and thinks that this is a big chance to transform itself tremendously.”
A group of academics mulled over North Korea’s future and its relations with the rest of the world in a roundtable interview with the Asahi Shimbun.
- Noting Pyongyang’s close ties with Beijing, Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus at Keio University, predicted that China’s leaders will support the Kim Jong-un regime, fearing the consequences of a North Korea plunged into turmoil. Okonogi also predicted that North Korea’s foreign policy will remain unchanged for the time being.
- Shunji Hiraiwa, a professor of North Korean politics and diplomacy at Kwansei Gakuin University, added that although Kim Jong-un studied in Switzerland, this does not necessarily mean he has a more open mind towards the West. Since for the time being, he will be supported by the party and the military, “It will take time for his personality to be reflected in the country’s external policies.”
Several editorials highlighted Kim’s death as an opportunity to spur investigations into the abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, which Pyongyang admitted to during a September 2002 visit by former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
There is little discussion of India’s broader interests in Northeast Asia, but commentaries do reflect the range of foreign policy orientations in Indian society.
- The Times of India and its sister paper The Economic Times are cautiously optimistic that this might be “a great opportunity for change” and reform in North Korea. Expressing the liberal-globalist belief in economic engagement, editorials urge South Korea, Japan and the US to “open channels of communication and offer economic aid…[to] provide North Korea’s new leadership with sufficient incentive to relax the system from within.”
- Leftists in India tend to be skeptical of the use of military power. An editorial in The Hindu says South Korea’s recent “military grandstanding, conducting provocative naval exercise…and assuming a hostile political science” are “not the intelligent way.”
- From its commentary on North Korea, “the quintessential rogue state,” the nationalist-leaning Hindustan Times brought the focus back to the subcontinent. “While Indians may see North Korea as a distant hermit kingdom, they should perhaps take a closer look because…the country that parallels the behaviour of North Korea the closest is Pakistan. They should…realise that reeling in a rogue state is as much about patience and guile as it is about power and will.”
A common theme in the state-controlled press was the expectation of a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea.
- Zhang Tingyan, a former Chinese diplomat to Pyongyang, said Chinese-North Korean relations “should develop at a relatively proper pace….A peaceful transition is good for everyone, and that’s what will happen for the DPRK’s relations with the ROK, US and Japan.”
- Editorials in The Global Times were dedicated to highlighting the importance of China’s role in ensuring a smooth transition in Pyongyang. “China’s stance has played an important role in contributing to the current situation,…a successful example of international diplomacy…China’s clear and firm attitude in supporting North Korea has restricted the choices of other countries.” The Communist Party-supported paper also urged China’s attitude to be “resolute in maintaining the independence of North Korea, protect the country’s transition of power from external interference, and ensure its freedom to choose its own path.”
- In contrast, Gong Keyu, deputy director of the Centre for Asian-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, commented in the Indian newspaper The Hindu that Kim’s death “is not good news for the Six-Party Talks.”
Officials announced that relations between Moscow and Pyongyang would remain unaffected, while some commentators alluded to a possible opening in DPRK relations with the change in leadership.
President Dmitry Medvedev sent his condolences to Kim Jong-un on Monday, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Kim Jong-il’s death would not impair relations between Russia and North Korea.
Several scholars debated whether Kim Jong-un’s ascension might bring liberalization to the DPRK’s foreign relations:
- Raising a parallel with the Soviet Union, researcher Yevgeny Kim at the Institute of the Far East with the Russian Academy of Sciences said that the “possible emergence of a figure similar to progressive leader Mikhail Gorbachev could lead to the ‘destruction’ of the North Korean regime.
- Pavel Leshakov, a Korea expert at Moscow State University, disagreed, noting that “the Soviet example has taught the North Korean elite not to embrace outright reformism.”
WHAT THE RISING POWERS INITIATIVE(RPI) EXPERTS ARE SAYING
- Characterizing North Korea’s future as “uncertain“, Gregg Brazinsky, associate professor of history and international affairs at the George Washington University asserted that “Pyongyang’s most pressing concern right now is likely that its adversaries will view Kim Jong Il’s death as a sign of weakness and initiate new efforts to topple the North Korean government,” For this reason, Brazinsky urged the Obama administration to “do something to alleviate some of the fear and mistrust.”
- Narushige Michishita, an expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, noted that because Kim Jong-un is closer in age to young policymakers of his generation who have developed a taste for cell phones and computers, “we can expect some new things, but we don’t know if that will result in political transformation.”