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After Kim Jong-Il, uncertainty for future of North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, shown here in 1992, has passed away, leaving many questions as to the future of his country.

South Koreans watch a television broadcast following the announcement of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il on December 19, 2011 in Seoul, South Korea.

Jeremy Hobson: As the world wakes up to the news that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il has died of a heart attack, and is being replaced by his son Kim Jong-Un, South Korea is already putting its military on high alert. And U.S. officials say decisions on nuclear talks and sending food to North Korea could be postponed.

For more on the situation, we're joined by Brian Myers, who's a professor of International Studies at Dongseo University. He's with us from Busan, South Korea. Good morning.

Brian Myers: Good morning.

Hobson: First of all, bring us up to date on the current state of North Korea and its economy.

Myers: As for its economy, its economy seems to be in better shape than it was just a couple years ago. I was in Pyongyang in North Korea in June, and you could see there was sort of a different atmosphere in the air -- a lot of cheerfulness; a lot more foreign cars on the streets; sort of Western-style franchises, like hamburger shops and things like that.

So you generally get the impression of things looking up economically. And the usual reason given for this is that Chinese investment has really increased quite drastically in the last few years in North Korea.

Hobson: We're still talking about one of the poorest countries in the world, right?

Myers: You know, of course, Pyongyang is a special case because it's, so to speak, the showcase for the entire Republic. But I drove across the country to the eastern coast as well, and I must say I saw a lot of evidence of malnutrition. You see stunted children; people are generally much, much shorter than their counterparts in South Korea.

But I saw no evidence of starvation, and I didn't get the impression from talking to people that any kind of revolt was in the offing -- certainly, nothing like that.

Hobson: What are your main concerns as we go into the next days and weeks and this transition in North Korea?

Myers: Well, part of the problem is that Kim Jong-Il really has died at a bad time for the North Korean regime, because 2012 was supposed to be a long, non-stop celebration of North Korea's having attainted to the status of a strong and prosperous country. And the North Korean economy really just has not fulfilled expectations to that extent.

So the danger is that the North Korean regime might want to divert attention from its economic failures but racheting up tension with the outside world. And that could mean some kind of provocation -- another attack on South Korea, perhaps, like we saw in 2010, or perhaps problems on the nuclear front. So it's certainly unstable.

Hobson: Brian Myers, professor of International Studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, thanks so much for your time this morning.

Myers: Thank you.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.

South Koreans watch a television broadcast following the announcement of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il on December 19, 2011 in Seoul, South Korea.

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