published Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

The death of Kim Jong Il means change in North Korea

The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il on Sunday ends the reign of one of the world's most enigmatic and dangerous political leaders. It also spurs understandable unrest in capitals around the globe. For the moment, world leaders can do little but wait and see if Kim's apparent successor, his son Kim Jong-un, is able to take control of the country and, if so, what his succession will mean in terms of domestic and international policy.

One thing is certain. Most nations are preparing for the worst while hoping for the best as events in North Korea unfold in coming days and weeks. They is little other choice given the secrecy that is endemic there.

Indeed, even foreign policy experts and analysts most familiar with North Korea can only guess at this point if the son will become North Korea's effective ruler or if the nation's military -- the real power in the country -- will change the course of transition. Unpredictability remains the one certainty.

On Monday, for example, North Korea conducted a short-range missile test, always a worrisome event since the country continues to work on nuclear weaponry. Whether it was a routine test or an especially timely reminder that nothing has changed in North Korea after Kim's death, is debatable. The test, though, is a reminder that nations with a vested interest in the region should follow the transition in North Korea closely and be prepared for whatever might arise from it.

Consequently, South Korea, which shares one of the world's most heavily fortified and dangerous borders with the north, put its military on high alert shortly after Kim's death was reported. It was more a precaution than an act based on knowledge that there is an imminent threat from the north. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, in fact, urged all South Koreans "to go about their lives" shortly after the military alert was announced.

Caution prevailed, too, in other nations with strong diplomatic, economic or military ties in the region. China, long Pyongyang's most potent ally, worked quietly behind the scenes to assure stability in North Korea, The United States, a staunch supporter of South Korea, did the same. The White House announced that it would closely watch developments in the region, but said little more. Russia and Japan followed suit, indicating through both official and unofficial channels that that they hoped calm would prevail on the Korean peninsula.

At this writing, that appeared to be the case. Though the domestic and international media is strictly controlled, images from North Korea on Monday showed tens of thousands of people weeping in public and others placing floral tributes beneath the many public portraits of Kim Jong Il. There was no indication of public unrest.

The United States and other nations had hoped to use the promise of much-needed food, fuel and other aid to restart nuclear negotiations with North Korea in the new year. Kim's death likely will postpone that effort, but it should not delay talks indefinitely. Stability in the region and bringing an end to North Korea's nuclear brinksmanship were the proper goals of U.S. foreign policy before Kim Jong Il's death on Sunday. They should remain the same now.

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