December 19th, 2011
03:19 AM ET

Kim Jong Il's death leaves a combustible region on edge

The death of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has ushered in a period of tremendous uncertainty in Northeast Asia, with every move by countries in the region risking unpredictable reactions from others.

South Korea ramped up its level of military alert Monday following the announcement of Kim's death, while Japan held emergency military meetings. The United States said it was in close contact with the South Korean and Japanese governments.

"It's a moment that's rife for miscalculation and unintended consequences," said CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

The region is a combustible geopolitical mix. The South, which has the support of the United States, and the nuclear-armed North, allied with China, have technically remained at war since the conflict that split the peninsula in the 1950s.

Even before Kim's death, tensions had spiked between the two Koreas last year. The North was accused of sinking a South Korean naval vessel in the Yellow Sea and fired artillery at a South Korean island in November 2010, killing two civilians.

But the United States and other parties had appeared to make progress in recent weeks to try to rekindle negotiations over the North's nuclear program, known as the six-party talks.

Those efforts now seem to have been in vain.

Kim's death makes the negotiations "seem even further out of reach than they were before," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, project director for Northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent and resolve conflicts.

Kim had controlled the opaque, authoritarian North Korean regime for more than 15 years. The sudden announcement of his death thrusts his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, onto center stage. But the younger Kim's intentions and leadership capabilities remain murky.

Kim Jong Un is young and inexperienced, said Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the US-China Institute. He added that it remained to be seen whether he would be able to consolidate his power and whether he would actually lead or just be a figurehead.

The danger, according to Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the International Crisis Group, is if the younger Kim and his close supporters find themselves in a weak position domestically and feel the need to make a show of military muscle to appear stronger.

"Then you get into the fireworks and provocation side of North Korean policy," she said.

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soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. kyle788

    I hope for the best of course, especially for kim jong il's son to deviate from his fathers' policies. Unfortunately, in my limited knowledge, I am fearful that Kim Jong Un may wish to demonstrate his control of the country and his worth as a leader with some kind of drastic action that may have unforseen consequences.

    Mr Kim Jong Un, the world is watching and may you use your opportunity for the good of all Koreans, and all humankind.

    December 19, 2011 at 4:25 am | Report abuse |
  2. banasy©

    It is one thing to follow his father's foreign policies, it is another to inject some humanity into the way he treats his people.
    Let's hope he *doesn't* follow Kim Jong II's domestic policies.
    His people are starving.

    December 19, 2011 at 7:06 am | Report abuse |
  3. bobcat ( in a hat )

    I think one of the biggest standing problems will be the military. It's hard to get a read on them. If the Great Successor wants to make changes for the good, will the military back him ?

    December 19, 2011 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
  4. BOMBO

    "The death of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has ushered in a period of tremendous uncertainty in Northeast Asia, with every move by countries in the region risking unpredictable reactions from others."

    Actually, no. The only wild card is North Korea. Everyone else in the region does things by the numbers. Nice dramatic statement, though.

    December 19, 2011 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
  5. banasy©

    @BOMBO:
    It *is* a snappy little statement, no?

    December 19, 2011 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  6. accurateasalways

    "It *is* a snappy little statement, no?" Exactly: great ratings for the Mayan calender crowds, more funding for the scarecrows and somehow its not about lost wars, trillions for Roman cultural dominance and losers ... just yet.

    Notice how all those "patriot" webpages all appear to have the "inside track?" Like they are wanting to spill some great secrets..... perhaps they are like private manning just giving us "secrets" such as "buy gold now" and build that Noahs ark in your backyard... LOL (it is raining: we must not laugh when it is raining)

    December 19, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Anthony

    I too hope Mr Kim jong Un of N Korea excersises new beliefs and begans a change in there country. Think about this, there is a 29 year old man greeving over the loss of his father, While our CNN analist call him a little boy and talk trash on how bad his father was. We have not even given him a chance or even given him our blessings on the loss of his father. Regardless of what he did in the past he is no longer with us he can no longer hurt us. We have alot at stake and we could have shown him how things should be instead we have shown him that the United States are a bunch of inconsiderate A holes. When we have to send our families over to Korea to protect there land just remember we never even tried to show them there is another way, we just continued where we left off.

    December 20, 2011 at 12:46 am | Report abuse |