FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: North Korea and the Bomb

The Man Who Would Be Kim

Kim Il Sung with his son Kim Jong Il. Reuters


The Korean peninsula has entered a period of grave uncertainty. The death of North Korean President Kim Il Sung on July 8 came at a critical moment. The United States had just resumed talks to probe whether North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for diplomatic recognition and economic assistance. With Kim's death, the answer to that question, which will define the fate of not only the North but the entire peninsula, fell into the untested hands of his son, Kim Jong Il. It is a question that this oddly reclusive man cannot hope to answer. Having assumed power when he did, the younger Kim is caught in a bind that only his father might have had the power, if not the wisdom, to break.

Kim Jong Il's dilemma is this: the North's increasing isolation and impoverishment make political and economic reform imperative; but Kim may find reform impossible. His legitimacy rests almost solely with the mantle of extreme nationalism inherited from his revered father. Kim will have little choice now but to continue down that road. But the need for economic opening is so overwhelming, the North's isolationist course and pursuit of nuclear weapons so untenable, and Kim's apparent abilities so limited that his regime will almost surely be short-lived.

The Korean peninsula remains unique. It is a place where the strategic interests of China, Japan, and Russia intersect, and where the United States still keeps 37,000 troops to deter another war. A nuclearized North or its messy breakup can only be averted by strengthening the regional deterrence and defense capabilities of America and its East Asian allies now. A steady and consistent policy of quiet and credible action will help discourage any provocation by the North's insecure but substantially weakened regime. In the meantime, should a reformist clique emerge - one that takes its cues from economic necessity rather than the dangerous imperatives of an outmoded ideology - then a new era of reconciliation and

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