Monday, December 19, 2011

Kim Il Jong's Death

It is now eight hours after the North Korean announcement that Dear Leader Kim Il Jong died last Saturday. Since then, both BBC and CNN have suspended normal programming and broadcast nothing but analysis and commentary about this unexpected development. (Dear Leader was known to be ailing, but his death was generally supposed to be years away.)

Indian television broadcasters initially took note of the North Korean dictator's death in crawlers, then as a back item in the headline announcements led by cricket, and finally, as important news. I have yet to see any attempt to explain the importance of the news, so the higher billing was probably purely imitative of foreign broadcasters.

Why is the news important?

The primary reason is that it introduces a new level of uncertainty in a region of high and multi-layered tensions. Pyongyang has been given to a high degree of paranoia since the 1950-1953 Korean War, and in recent years it has repeatedly raised the spectre of war in response to what it sees as aggressive moves by South Korea and the United States. It has specifically held out the prospect of nuclear war, the capacity for which it has developed, along with missiles capable of hitting Japan, its other hated enemy in the region.

The "Great Successor" to the dead dictator is his son, the almost unknown Kim Il Un, reported to be in his thirties, with little experience in matters of State. His relationship with the military, the centre of power in North Korea, is unknown.

There are many imponderables in the current situation. What might happen if the Great Successor encountered challengers? How would China react if the ensuing power struggle threatened its strategic stake in the country?

What effect will these developments have at a time when economic factors are threatening to destabilize China itself? In recent years the number of "mass incidents" -- as Beijing describes widespread public unrest -- has been running over 180,000 annually. The sizable "village" of Wukan (population 20,000) in southern China has been on strike since September, and it has managed to drive out the local Communist Party functionaries. Throughout the once-bustling southern provinces the rage of workers has been erupting in increasingly larger demonstrations as factories close for want of foreign orders.

If Wukan sets the pattern for the national unrest that will be inevitable if the world dips further into a recession, we could be seeing events of earth-shaking significance. There are some 160 million migrant workers in China who have been deliberately kept as an underclass, without residential rights in cities and forced to live on hardscrabble wages.

What effects such changes will have on South Asia are also completely up in the air. With Pakistan on a razor's edge and Tibet in a slow boil, the chances of conflict are high. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh might be right in his belief that China does not intend to attack India. But what if conflicts in South Asia persuaded Beijing that it had no choice?

The possibility of war is certainly on the minds of Chinese leaders. AFP reported on 13 December that Chinese President Hu Jintao, speaking to the powerful Central Military Commission, had "urged the navy to prepare for military combat, amid growing regional tensions over maritime disputes and a US campaign to assert itself as a Pacific power." The speech was posted on an official web site, so it is not a case of Western sensationalism.

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