Talk about riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas. Winston Churchill's famous comment about the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin is even more appropriate regarding North Korea. The death of its venerable dictator, Kim Il Sung, marks the end of an era. He was the last of the national leaders who dominated the years immediately following World War II, for better or worse. He may prove to be the last of the communist supreme rulers as well.
None of the major Marxist dictatorships has succeeded in transferring power to its heir apparent for very long. Mr. Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, has the advantage of a head start. His father transferred day-to-day authority to him several years ago. He appears to be taking hold of the critical levers of power in Pyongyang. Holding onto them will be another matter.
Far less is known about North Korea than any other country with its military strength and potential for serious international disruption. The younger Mr. Kim is a mystery, indeed.
Few foreigners have met him, and not many more have first-hand information about his nation. His apparent personal life and psychological profile leave some analysts worried about his capacity for leadership without internal turmoil. Some analysts hold him responsible for infamous acts of terrorism. Others credit him with stage-managing some of North Korea's tentative diplomatic maneuvering with South Korea and the United States. He has had nominal control of the military for several years, but does he have its loyalty? The experts disagree. All are guessing.
The stakes are enormous. This is no isolated, xenophobic Albania. Pyongyang's army is 1 million strong. If it doesn't already have a couple of nuclear weapons, it could in a few years. There have been few more relentless, ruthless and rapacious tyrants than the elder Mr. Kim. Conquest of the far more prosperous South Korea had been his lifelong ambition, foiled by U.S. intervention in 1950.
Some analysts believe he was modifying his methods, if not his ultimate goal, just before his death last week. Reunification used to be the cherished objective of South Korea's leaders as well. They have modified their ambitions in the realization that joining the industrializing, increasingly democratic south with the poverty-stricken north would be an intolerable economic burden. North Korea's neighbors would like to believe pragmatism has similarly taken hold in Pyongyang.
Against this background, the rest of the world can only stand and watch. The U.S., which still has 37,000 troops in South Korea as a guarantee against renewed aggression from the north, is determined to halt Pyongyang's production of nuclear weapons. Talks that were about to start in Geneva are postponed only temporarily. If they resume, the enigma may yet be unraveled.