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Opportunities, dangers ahead as world weighs impact of Kim Jong Il's death

Analysts were optimistic yet cautious Monday over the future of North Korea and its relations with the world following the death of Kim Jong Il.
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Analysts were optimistic yet cautious Monday over the future of North Korea and its relations with the outside world following the death of Kim Jong Il.

The transfer of power to his young and untested son Kim Jong Un could allow Pyongyang the chance to renew relations with its neighbors but comes as Western countries concentrate on the Middle East and economic difficulties.

Experts said it was unlikely the U.S. or any other country would use the succession to put pressure on North Korea's brutal regime — a move that could backfire.

"We're not going to see an expeditionary force sailing in to liberate North Korea next week," said Dr Jim Hoare, a British former diplomat who served in the country, told

The timing of the succession is also awkward for both Pyongyang and the outside world.

It could affect the outcome of elections due next year in South Korea. The country immediately put its military personnel on high alert.

It also comes as the Obama administration was already debating whether to go ahead with a new round of nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea and whether to provide food aid to the country, which has been struggling with crippling food shortages.

The administration had been poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea this week, according to sources close to the negotiations. An agreement by North Korea to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program was expected to follow within days, sources told Reuters.

'Highly unusual'
Dr John Swenson-Wright, associate fellow of the Asia program at London-based think tank Chatham House, said the change presented "both opportunities and potential hazards."

"It comes at a particularly bad time," he told "In North Korea, it will overshadow preparations for the spring celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Kim Il Sung. In South Korea there are elections and for the United States, President Obama is also in an election year with a difficult economy and quite pressing international concerns elsewhere.

"In a Confucian society, a transition to the youngest son is highly unusual. We don't fully know the reasons behind it — was it down to the inadequacies of the older brothers, or some other reason? That is another unresolved question," he added.

Hoare said Kim Jong Il's eldest son had fallen out of favor after being caught trying to go to Disneyland in Japan on a forged diplomatic passport, while his other son "has been described as a little girl, which could mean he was effeminate or it could just be a turn of phrase".

It is not clear how tightly Kim Jong Un will be able control his own country's fearsome military hierarchy, particularly since he appears to have little experience except a role on the country's National Defense Commission.

"The most likely scenario for regime collapse has been the sudden death of Kim (Jong Il). We are now in that scenario," Victor Cha, a former U.S. National Security Council director for Asian affairs, told The Associated Press.

Dr Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst for the RAND Corporation, said there had been reports of attempts to kill Kim Jon Il shortly he took over in 1994.

"Bear in mind Kim Jong Il had three decades to prepare for power through purges that built up his personal support before that succession," he said. "Kim Jong Un has had only about 15 months.

"We didn't even have a photograph of him until recently, and his only widely known action achievement was a disastrous currency devaluation about two years ago," he added.

However, Swenson-Wright said internal instability or a coup appeared unlikely.

"It is quite possible Kim Jong Un's uncle [Jang Song Thaek] will step up to provide guidance, in a sort of regency period until Kim Jong Un grew into the role. I think any talk of an internal coup is highly fanciful," he said.

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague suggested the succession "could be a turning point for North Korea", while Australia's Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said it was "one of those critical junctures" and "an exceptionally difficult period of transition."

"It is critical that everybody exercises appropriate calm and restraint in what is a important development in terms of the overall stability of the region and the security of us all," Rudd added.

China is also expected to take a strong behind-the-scenes role to help retain its influence, which is seen as important no matter which direction North Korea takes.

"If North Korea continues to be an international pariah, China will continue to benefit from its current leverage," U.S. Naval Academy China scholar Yu Maochun told Reuters.

"If North Korea becomes less intransigent and slightly more open, then China will be greatly worried about the possible warming-up, or even reunification, between North and South Koreas."

There are some signs the regime's control on communications may be slipping. Cell phones are now increasingly commonplace among Pyongyang residents, and not just among the regime elite, Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which operates trips to North Korea, told Reuters.

In the last couple of years, mobile phone use has "just exploded," he said, with people often using mid-range, China-made handsets to trade SMS messages, play games and browse weather reports.

Hoare added that "once you start making reforms, it is hard to stop."

"They may be cautious about opening up any further until the leadership issue is stabilized," he said.

From work to play, see pictures from inside the secretive country.

"It is wrong to call North Korea a hermit country. The leadership and the elites in Pyongyang do hear what happens elsewhere — albeit a bit later than the rest of the world. When I was last there it was at the time [Moammar] Gadhafi was captured and there was a great deal of interest in that and what it might mean," Hoare said.

Some Western politicians suggested they were waiting to see what comes next.

"The death of a dictator is always a period of uncertainty for a dictatorship," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter. "And North Korea is the hardest dictatorship in our time."

Follow Alastair Jamieson on Twitter at @alastairjam