Kim Jong Il: End of an era – and the start of… what?

12/19/2011
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The Dear Leader’s passing leaves many questions to be answered, including ones which are vital to Japan’s defense

North Korea's Missiles

TOKYO (majirox news) – With so much Japanese printer’s ink having been expended on the threat posed to Japan by North Korea, the reports a few hours ago of the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il’s, demise (apparently on Saturday) will undoubtedly cause ripples in Japan’s political and defense circles.

Within a matter of an hour or so of the announcement South Korea’s military forces have declared an emergency alert and a security meeting has been called. Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has canceled scheduled engagements, with a security meeting replacing them, and a Japanese crisis management team has been established to deal with the situation. Government ministries have been instructed to collect all relevant information.

According to a senior advisor to the Japanese military, the Noda-led government needs to display leadership, and a clear statement of commitment to peace and stability in the region. With regard to the previous shelling incident last November, this advisor feels that the then Japanese government (led by Naoto Kan) missed its chance to offer sympathy and express solidarity with South Korea.

Majirox News spoke to Paul Kallender-Umezu, author of “In Defense of Japan: From the Market to the Military in Space Policy” (Stanford University Press) and currently a PhD student at Keio University’s School of Media and Governance, on the effects of this news.

Since the “hermit kingdom” has remained secretive over its accomplishments, Kallender-Umezu says it is “never easy to know the reality of the strategic threat, or what North Korea’s space ambitions really are, despite the hysteria of the Japanese media.”

The main perceived threat is from the DPRK’s missile capability, but the Taepodong 1 and 2 intercontinental ballistic missiles have had a mixed track record, and few test firings, and, according to Kallender-Umezu, “it would not be naïve to say that the ballistic missile threat [to the US] is overblown.”

However, it would seem that the Nodong series of medium-range missiles, developed from the notorious Soviet “Scud” SS-1, would pose more of a threat to Japan, should whoever gains control of these missiles ever decide to use them.

“Without overplaying the North Korean threat to Japan,” Kallender-Umezu says, “it would be extremely naïve not to heighten the alert posture. We would expect to see rapid co-ordination with U.S. forces.”

However, the political situation is more of an unknown than is the missile capability. Though there is a designated successor in the form of Kim Jong Un, the Dear Leader’s third son, it is not sure how much of a power base he has been able to establish within the Party and within the armed forces.

The likelihood of North Korea making any formal declaration of war against Japan or any other country is unlikely, constrained as the DPRK is by its partnership with and dependency on China. But Kallender-Umezu offers another scenario involving an internal struggle, either intra-Party, Party-army, or intra-army. “If that occurs,” he says, “all bets are off,” but he is keen at the same time to emphasize that we should not overplay the North Korean threat to Japan at this time.

We can only wait and watch as more news emerges from North Korea regarding the possible struggles for succession in the world’s sole surviving Stalinist state.

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