The world has tired of quirky tyrants with big weapons and records of foreign savagery. North Korea has had two, a father and son, who ruled for almost seven decades. This week a new heir took power. His very weakness, however, is forcing the world to once again put up its guard.
Kim Jong-un is under 30, little prepared to govern, and yet he has a finger on a nuclear trigger. His father, Kim Jong-il, who died on Saturday, left behind an economy so fragile that many North Koreans are starving. The center cannot hold too much longer.
Similar conditions of weakness pushed the Kim dynasty in the past to provoke conflict as a way to tighten its grip and gain concessions from the United States or South Korea. If that pattern of lashing out continues, the US and its allies must maintain the same patience, restraint, and strength that has successfully bottled up a volatile North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Just as steely deterrence won the cold war, Americans cannot let North Korea make good on threats against South Korea or export nuclear and missile technology. But neither can the US use military means for regime change, as it did in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya over the past decade.
The triumph of deterrence requires President Obama to keep insisting that China, the only ally of North Korea, rein in the regime in Pyongyang. Eventually the Kim dynasty will collapse, especially as each new heir proves less able to rule and splinters develop among North Korea’s wealthy elite.
The question is whether North Korea will have a soft or hard landing. Internal reforms and opening up North Korea are risky, as they might bring revolt or a mass exodus. China has failed to persuade the earlier Kimsto take that path. It must try again with the third Kim.
The new leader will likely be controlled for some time by powerful relatives or military commanders. But rule by committee can make diplomacy difficult, especially in restarting the six-nation talks aimed at ridding the country of its nuclear-weapons capacity.
China itself is acting more belligerent toward its neighbors these days. That may complicate its role.
Fortunately, Mr. Obama has refocused his foreign policy on Asia, in large part to balance China’s rising influence. That shift should now include renewing the US commitment to South Korea’s defense, even if Americans are more weary of possible overseas wars.
America’s diligence in Asia has paid off well, especially with the expansion of democracies since the 1980s and the region’s economic dynamism. The diligence must now be heightened toward North Korea, a sorry remnant of the communist era and the days when petty tyrants went largely unchecked.