Spy agencies scramble for clues after North Korean leader’s death
December 19, 2011 2 Comments
By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS* | intelNews.org |
Even though rumors had been rife for quite some time about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s worsening health, his death startled intelligence agencies the world over. In typical fashion, North Korean state media announced yesterday that “the dear leader” had died on Saturday onboard a train during one of his usual field trips, “due to immense mental and physical strain caused by his […] building of a thriving nation”. A period of national mourning has been declared in the country until December 29. In the hours following the startling announcement, which Time magazine dubbed “a nightmare before Christmas”, no unusual activity was observed in the North, while early Monday reports from North Korean capital Pyongyang stated that traffic was “moving as usual”. Moreover, despite longstanding rumors about Kim Jong Il’s ill health, few intelligence analysts in South Korea, Japan, or the United States have been observing overt signs of political instability, or a leadership crisis. However, despite the apparent calm in the North, intelligence agencies around the world have gone on high alert, led by those in South Korea, which has remained technically at war with the North since 1950. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak reportedly placed the country’s military on emergency alert on Sunday, and has ordered government officials to remain in capital Seoul and “maintain emergency contact” with their office staff. French sources said that one of the first outcomes of an emergency National Security Council meeting that took place in Seoul on Sunday was to request that the American Pentagon, which maintains nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea, steps up aerial surveillance over the North. Japan has also stepped up its intelligence-gathering operations in North Korea, and its Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, instructed his government to “closely share information” on North Korea with the United States, South Korea, and —notably— China.
In the early 1950s, China single-handedly preserved North Korea’s existence, after entering the Korean War with hundreds of thousands of troops, and beating back the US-led multinational onslaught that had pushed North Korean troops almost to the Chinese border. Since then, Beijing has remained North Korea’s protector and largest trading partner. For this reason, regional and Western intelligence agencies are also keeping a close eye on the Chinese government, whose primary concern is to ensure that North Korea remains stable at this critical juncture. Beijing’s obvious and long-standing strategic goal in the Korean Peninsula is to preserve the North-South divide, thus preventing US troops from getting uncomfortably close to the Chinese border. Beijing is therefore likely to place its troops on high alert and tighten security along the North Korean border over the next few days.
Most intelligence experts seem to agree that the late “dear leader’s” third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, appears as the obvious successor to his father’s post. Early on Monday, North Korea’s state television openly urged the country’s population to “faithfully revere respectable comrade Kim Jong Un” and look to his leadership as a means of “changing sadness to strength and courage”. Until recently, North Korean state media referred to Kim Jong Un as the Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea. But in 2010 he was suddenly promoted to a four-star general, and began being referred to as such by North Korean media —a move widely seen by regional and Western observers as official approval of his successor status. During the past year, Kim Jong Un is said to have been increasingly involved in running the government. But not much more is known about this reputed successor, not even his age, which is said to be around 27 years. Official state media report that he graduated from Pyongyang’s Kim Il-Sung Military University in 2007, but little is known about his prior whereabouts. Some say that he was educated in an exclusive Swiss boarding school, where he registered under a false name, using a forged passport supplied to him by North Korean intelligence.
Despite the confusion around Kim Jong Un, it can be safely assumed that he is young, with little experience in running a country. What is more, there are unconfirmed rumors circulating in North Korea that his late mother was Ko Yong-Hi, a Japanese-born Korean dancer who was Kim Jong Il’s third wife, or reputed mistress, and is said to have died of breast cancer in 2004. If this is so, then Kim Jong Un’s connection with Japanese culture and values may place his planned his succession in doubt, as members of North Korea’s military may be suspicious of allowing the country’s supreme leadership to be ‘tainted’ by anything Japanese.
The death of Kim Jong Il casts a long shadow over North Korea’s future, as well as Southeast Asian regional stability. This uncertainty is only augmented by North Korea’s regimented and closely monitored society, which makes the country practically impenetrable to intelligence gathering by outside spy agencies. Even if the situation unfolds as planned, and Kim Jong Un assumes the country’s reins, it will be years before the dust from “the dear leader’s” death settles. Until then, spy agencies around the world will continue to scramble for scraps of valuable information about the world’s most reclusive nation.
* Dr Joseph Fitsanakis coordinates the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King College, USA. He is Senior Editor of intelNews.