WASHINGTON -- The death of Kim Il Sung has the United States and its allies groping in near-darkness in a game with enormous stakes.
How it plays out will have huge consequences for the Clinton presidency, the gradual shrinkage of U.S. military might, the spread of nuclear arms worldwide, prosperity throughout Asia and perhaps the survival of millions of South Koreans.
When he died, reportedly of a heart attack, North Korea's dictator had begun a crucial diplomatic exchange with the United States and South Korea while shrewdly maintaining the option of building up a nuclear weapons capability.
Negotiations were just under way in Geneva in which the United States was prepared to offer diplomatic and economic incentives in exchange for abandonment of North Korea's nuclear ambitions. A summit between leaders of North and South Korea was two weeks away.
The timing of his death was "inherently shocking," a senior Clinton administration Asian specialist said yesterday.
This added to the mysteries about North Korea's future.
Will a power struggle break out? Will the groomed successor, Kim Jong Il, take over? Will he survive in power for long?
Underlying these questions is the mystery of North Korea's nuclear intentions: Is it developing bombs with an aggressive purpose or as bargaining chips?
"There's never been a transition in North Korea, so there's no precedent," the specialist said. "It's hard to pierce what's going on."
Initial positive signals were highlighted by President Clinton, in Naples, Italy, and by others, after Secretary of State Warren Christopher conferred by telephone with his counterpart in South Korea, Foreign Minister Han Jung Joo.
Although South Korea put its own forces on low-level alert, no additional alert was ordered for the U.S. military. The military emphasis was on keeping the situation as calm as possible and avoiding provocation.
North Korea indicated that it wanted the late-July summit to proceed and asked U.S. negotiators to remain in Geneva, even though talks are suspended.
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported no change in the ability of its inspectors in North Korea to continue monitoring the nuclear program.
"So we believe that they will stay with their policy and stay with their course, that this reflects the feelings of the leadership in North Korea and not simply the feelings of Kim Il Sung," Mr. Clinton told reporters at the summit in Italy. But he added, "Now, I'm only telling you what I know today.
"One of the things that we're trying to do with North Korea, that I've tried to do from the beginning, is to open the prospect of a continuing and a personal dialogue. I don't think we want to be isolated from each other. And, as I said, the preliminary indications, in what must be a very difficult time for them and a sad time, have been encouraging."
These signs lent added weight to the conclusion of Selig S. Harrison, who follows North Korea closely at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Harrison, who recently visited the capital, Pyongyang, said that the world was witnessing "a stable transition to a new leadership that's been in the making for 10 years."
He depicted Kim Jong Il as in full control of the military high command and "a dove on foreign economic policy," the driving force behind the opening up of free-trade investment zones.
But other analysts offered a darker picture.
Baker Spring of the conservative Heritage Foundation views the younger Mr. Kim as more committed than the military leadership to North Korea's nuclear program. He is also seen as less risk-averse than the military, which must fight any war with the United States and the South.
"Within the foreign policy establishment, it's all over the map," said a senior U.S. defense official. "Some say Kim Jong Il is unpredictable and doesn't have total backing from the military. It certainly raises questions about stability."
All eyes will be on Geneva for clues about North Korea's intentions.
The negotiations were scheduled after Kim Il Sung told former President Jimmy Carter last month that North Korea would freeze its nuclear program and allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to remain at the Yongbyon nuclear plant outside of Pyongyang.
The inspectors observed the defueling of the reactor there and the storage of the spent fuel rods. They have not been allowed to examinethe rods, but their presence prevents the North Koreans from removing plutonium -- the vital ingredient in weapons manufacture.
"If the North Koreans balk in Geneva or if they go forward -- that will be the key indicator of how the transition goes in relations with the United States," said Kevin O'Neill, author of a recent paper of North Korean plutonium production for the Institute for Science and International Security.
Analysts said North Korea could use Mr. Kim's death as an excuse for delay of the talks or might allow them to resume without giving negotiators power to reach agreement.
Stephen Hadley, former assistant secretary of defense for international security, said the United States should prepare to beef up its forces in the area in case the North Koreans resort to a nuclear program.
"It gives us some rather bolder options down the road," he said, noting that it would be harder for the son than the father to make concessions.
"Always, it is the case that if something that will appear, particularly to conservative elements, as a concession, it is easier for the established leader of some 45 years to make that kind of concession."
In preparation for a resumption of talks, the United States and its allies should prepare a "coordinated major package" of incentives to get North Korea at least to halt its nuclear buildup, argues Spurgeon Keeny, president of the Arms Control Association here.
Mr. Harrison proposes offering, in exchange for a firm commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, diplomatic
recognition, trade, and a pledge by the United States not to use nuclear weapons first.
Then the United States and allies can offer help in developing less-threatening light-water nuclear reactors.
XTC If the talks turn sour, the outlook is ominous. By 1996, experts expect North Korea will be able to manufacture at least 10 bombs a year. By the turn of the century, with a third reactor operating, it could turn out 40 weapons a year.