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Uncertain Future for North Korea: Analysts

Pyongyang citizens grieve as they visit a portrait of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on display in the plaza of the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea, December 21, 2011.

The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has triggered a lot of questions about the country’s future, especially over issues of security, stability, political analysts in Cambodia and the US said this week.

Kim died Saturday of a heart attack, and while it appears his son, Kim Jong-un, will succeed him, there are questions over an internal political crisis and whether the people will accept their new leader, said Lao Monghay, an independent analyst.

“The transitional period is hard,” he said. “Outsiders seem not to know who will continue to hold power and what the policies of the transition will be.”

Cambodia has good relations with North Korea that stem from close ties between the former king, Norodom Sihanouk, and former leader Kim Il-sung.

Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said the death of Kim Jung-il brings about an unclear situation for North Korea.

“We don’t exactly know about the future of North Korea, about who has real power in internal and external politics,” he said. “We see that [Kim’s] son was installed as his successor, but what of the army commanders and politicians, do they have any opinions? Do they still support his son? In internal politics, as well as international politics, there is always mutual competition for power.”

Competition between North Korean power brokers could destabilize the country and the region, he added.

Nick Zahn, a fellow with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said Kim Jong-un may move to consolidate power, leading to more concerns over stability. It is also unclear how US relations with North Korea will change. Diplomacy will slow, he said, as Kim Jong-un consolidates power.

While the possibility of power grabs and instability are real, the leadership change could mean a difference to North Koreans, said John Ciorciary, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.

“Things may get even worse before they get better for the hapless North Korean people, but at least his passing opens the possibility for positive change,” he said. “Outsiders should be on the lookout for small openings to engage with reformists and empower them.”