Kim Jong Il's secret death


A South Korean protester holds a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a rally in central Seoul on March 25, 2011.


Park Ji-hwan

What does it say about a country when the death of its leader can be kept secret for two days?

In the case of North Korea, perhaps not much. In such a notoriously reclusive state, very little is transparent. There was no reason to think Kim Jong Il's death would be any different.

Still, that doesn't change the fact that Kim Jong Il is reported to have died on a railway train Saturday, and we didn't hear about it until Pyongyang put out an official announcement midday Monday.

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The window opens for speculation. Perhaps it's evidence that a power vaccuum is already underway, for instance.

Or maybe, that's just how long it took to get all the pieces in place. Two days really isn't that long, after all — and it could actually be evidence that short-term control has been quite successful.

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Experts weigh in:

GlobalPost correspondent Don Kirk reports that people in Seoul are asking whether Kim Jong Il actually had a heart attack, or whether he fell victim to opponents in the end.

"The big question is whether this death is foul play," Shim Jae-hoon, a veteran analyst of North Korean affairs told GlobalPost. "It took an unusually long time to make this announcement."

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Han Sung-joo, former South Korean foreign minister and ambassador to the US, said he was skeptical given Kim Jong Il's recent public appearance.

"He looked quite well in a picture taken two days before," Han said, adding that he thought the full truth would remain elusive.

Far from a power vacuum, North Korea expert and author of "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty," Bradley K. Martin, said he thinks it could actually be evidence that short-term control has been handled smoothly and effectively.

Two days is not a long time [in] the scheme of things. If they're satisfied that the chain of command is set after that short period, it suggests good short-term control. Although we don't know yet, I'm guessing Jang Song Taek and Kim Jong Un are giving the orders and so far everyone is obeying.

Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, who has been pulling the strings behind the scenes in recent months. Martin continued:

They probably needed some time to figure out details like when the funeral would be held, what sort of announcement they should make to have the most positive impact on their own people and foreigners.

Indeed, when Pyongyang did issue its official announcement, it looked carefully orchestrated. See below:

And in this video, the masses of grieve in what appears to be part of a carefully orchestrated display.

Michael Mazza, senior research associate who studies defense policy in the Asia-Pacific region and security on the Korean peninsula, said that the two-day wait period is hardly surprising. They did the same thing when Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994. He wrote by email:

Given North Korea’s secretive nature, it could take the time it needed to prepare its response without worrying about word of the death leaking out.

"The real question now is whether that secretive nature may change for the better," he said. "Unfortunately, I wouldn’t bet on it."