North Korea Transition

A RUTHLESS but venerated monarch dies. His reclusive son is the heir apparent; his reputation ranges from erratic and cruel to technocrat and possible reformer. But potential rivals include the late monarch's stepson and an uncle who seven months ago was lifted from obscurity to a top position in government. Will they follow the king's stated desire for succession? Or will a power struggle develop as the prince's claim to the throne is challenged?

Such a plot might merely make for a diverting summer read if the country involved wasn't North Korea. The country is in a steep economic decline with widespread deprivation, is technically at war with South Korea (a war it started that cost 34,000 American lives), is widely believed to possess nuclear devices, and is still a tightly closed bastion of Stalinism. It has lost the only leader it has had since its formation after World War II and is under threat of economic sanctions regarding its nuclear program. Moreover, its regime is seen as responsible for terrorist actions that include a bomb that killed several members of the South Korean Cabinet and the mid-air bombing of a Korean Airlines jet in 1987.

Although some analysts have pointed with hope to the smooth transition so far, others say such hopes are premature. In Korean culture, conflict can be masked with a veneer of calm. Moreover, what framework the country has for a transition of power is untested, particularly when the leader being replaced has been the object of an intense personality cult.

Faced with the uncertainties following the death of Kim Il Sung and the apparent transfer of power to his son, Kim Jong Il, the best the West can do now is: nothing provocative. So far, it has succeeded. While reiterating that Pyongyang must open specific nuclear facilities to inspection, the leaders at the G-7 summit in Naples, Italy, expressed their condolences at Mr. Kim's death. Even as South Korea put troops on alert, it sought to avoid provocations.

For its part, North Korea so far has allowed International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to remain in the country. More helpful would be to announce soon dates to resume talks with the US and with South Korea, both postponed at least during mourning for the late president.

Such openings remain the country's best potential avenues for emerging from its isolation and economic deterioration and for an eventual reunification with the South.

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