(Ray Cunningham/ flickr)

Kim Jong Il was a man responsible for imprisoning hundreds of thousands of his countrymen; testing two nuclear devices; deploying hundreds of ballistic missiles aimed at Tokyo and Seoul; and masterminding international drug, kidnapping, and nuclear weapons rings. A world without him, at least in theory, should be safer and more stable.

What comes after Kim, however, might deliver neither. Kim Jong Il did everything he could in the last two years of his life to groom his successor and son -- the 28-year-old Kim Jung Un -- to ensure continuity. Moreover, North Korea's generals and party leaders have every incentive to sustain the Kim family's cult of personality and make his son a success, since their own power and survival depends on it. But strongmen such as Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung are the exception rather than the norm in Korean political culture. The more familiar pattern is for court intrigue to tear the leadership apart and draw in powerful neighbors, which is precisely what happened with the collapse of the last monarchical dynasty in Korea at the end of the 19th Century.

The hazards of the power transition will not be immediately apparent. North Korea will enter a period of prolonged mourning for and hagiography of the Dear Leader (as Kim Jong Il was known), just as it did when the Great Leader, Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994. Back then, Kim Jong Il kept a low profile for months after his father's death to demonstrate his filial loyalty and respect. Kim Jong Un, the Dear Leader's son and heir, will presumably do much the same.

As the hermit kingdom retreats into its shell, the Obama administration will be desperate to know what is happening. North Korea will probably put plans for a third round of U.S.-North Korean talks on hold to focus on mourning and transition. For Washington, technical surveillance and limited human intelligence will continue to offer glimpses into politics in Pyongyang, but those morsels of information will not substitute for actual contact with the regime -- which is what the administration had wanted from another round of talks to begin with. More than ever, the administration will have to watch and worry behind the scenes.

Washington's biggest concern is that Kim Jong Un might get carried away in the effort to prove his legitimacy with the country's military. For its part, Seoul believes that he already has, arguing that Kim Jong Il might have orchestrated last year's torpedo attack on the South Korean corvette Cheonan to put a successful military operation under his would-be successor's belt. When North Korea killed civilians at an artillery barrage off the coastal island of Yeonpyeong weeks later, the South threatened direct military retaliation. Ultimately, Pyongyang backed down.

Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were masters of such brinkmanship. They continually gained leverage with Seoul, and with the West, by driving military provocations to the brink of war. It is unclear, however, as he comes out of his shell, whether the youngest Kim has the experience or confidence to play chicken without going too far.

As the mourning period ends, Kim Jong Un will be under particular pressure to demonstrate to his army and the world that he has made progress on the country's nuclear weapons program. For some time, North Korean propaganda has announced that 2012, the hundredth anniversary of the Great Leader's birth, will be the year in which the country will become a full-fledged nuclear weapons state. And Pyongyang has every incentive to make good on this promise.

This is also an election year, both in South Korea and the United States. That makes it an auspicious time for North Korean to play games of provocation. Kim Jong Il often relied on this strategy -- deferring overt advances in the nuclear program in order to gain near-term concessions, and then resuming development when it suited him. But it remains unclear whether Kim Jong Un has the chops to bound up to the edge without falling over it. That means that Washington and Seoul's push to eventually hold talks with Pyongyang to coax the regime away from tests might prove much harder (if they happen) with the younger Kim at the helm.

More dangerous still is the possibility that a desperate younger Kim returns to acts of overt proliferation over time. It would be a way of strong-arming the United States into providing aid and implicitly or explicitly acknowledge North Korea's nuclear weapons in exchange for a North Korean pledges not to proliferate abroad. In 2003, Pyongyang threatened to "transfer its nuclear deterrent" abroad if the United States did not make concessions demanded by the North, such as ending sanctions and the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan. Four years later, the Israeli Air Force took out a Syrian reactor complex that had been built with the help of North Korean engineers. North Korea paid no price for its part in the development of the Syrian reactor and today is cooperating with Myanmar (also called Burma) to build a suspicious network of underground tunnels.

Of course, there is a doomsday scenario: Kim Jong Un's succession falters, the regime unravels, and the world faces a security crisis in Asia. When Kim Il Sung died suddenly in 1994, the United States and South Korea planned furiously for instability, a civil war, or regime collapse in the North. In the event, the plans were unnecessary; nevertheless, Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo have engaged in such contingency planning ever since, and with a renewed fervor since the North's succession plans began in earnest in the last few years.

The best of all likely endings would be for the North Korean regime to falter, but the transition to that point would be the most dangerous. In its death throes, the regime could blunder into a conflict with Japan or South Korea and China. It could lose control of the country's fissile material and chemical and biological stockpiles. And who knows what side the North's 1.1 million-man army would take.

Kim Jong Il surprised many observers by staying in power after the death of his father. Kim Jong Un may do the same, but his odds are longer than his father's were. After a period of mourning and inward orientation, the need to move forward with the nuclear program in 2012 will test the young Kim and his ability to calibrate the intense pressures he will inevitably face from the North Korean military and international community. With the death of Kim Jong Il, there is both a whiff of hope in the air for 23 million suffering North Koreans, and a distinct tension in the air.

  • MICHAEL J. GREEN is Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Associate Professor at Georgetown University. He served as Special Assistant to the President and as Senior Director for Asia on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.
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