The hermit kingdom's changing of the guard

The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il leaves a cloud of uncertainty over North Asia and complicates efforts by the U.S. and its allies to halt the nuclear weapons program that is the principal legacy of his 17-year rule. Kim was a canny and manipulative despot who repeatedly thwarted efforts by more powerful neighbors and adversaries like the United States to stabilize the Korean peninsula. Now that he is gone, the internal power struggle over succession could have unpredictable and perhaps dangerous consequences for the region and the world.

Kim inherited his position from his father, Kim Il Sung, a Communist guerrilla leader who had fought the Japanese during World War II and, in 1948, founded the nation of North Korea, which he led until his death in 1994. The elder Kim, known as the "Great Leader," established an all-pervasive personality cult justifying his autocratic rule and launched economic policies based on the slogan of Juche, or "self-reliance," that by the end of his life had brought his country to the brink of ruin.

In 1980, Kim Il Sung named his son Kim Jong Il, known as the "Dear Leader," as his designated successor. The younger Kim, who was caricatured in the foreign press as a hard-drinking, self-absorbed playboy and inveterate womanizer in platform shoes, surprised his detractors by taking on a series of increasingly important official duties and was running most of the government's day-to-day operations by the time of his father's death.

Following in his father's footsteps, Kim Jong Il sought to continue the family dynasty to a third generation by designating his youngest son, Kim Il Eun, as supreme leader after his death. He announced that decision at a high-profile military parade in 2010, though he may already have begun taking steps in that direction the previous year.

But Kim Il Eun, who is thought to be 27 or 28, never had the long political apprenticeship his father enjoyed, and with relatively little experience in government he may not yet have had time to consolidate his support among North Korea's military and political elites. That has raised concerns that competing factions could attempt to gain leverage in an internal power struggle by lashing out with provocative acts aimed at South Korea, Japan or the United States. Last year, military officers who may have been aligned with Kim Il Eun orchestrated the bombardment of a South Korean fishing community and the sinking of a South Korean warship, killing more than 50 soldiers and civilians.

It may be some time before outsiders get any sort of handle on what is going on inside the reclusive regime. North Korea's state-run media didn't report the Kim Jong Il's death until nearly two days after they say it happened, leading to speculation that the delay signaled North Korea's competing elites were still jockeying for position in the power vacuum left by the Dear Leader's departure.

Early reports suggest Kim Il Eun will be leading the committee overseeing the funeral arrangements for his father, as well as a national day of mourning scheduled for next week. If true, those reports would lend credibility to the idea that, for the moment at least, he is acceptable to the military leaders who have final say over what happens in the country.

Since the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice rather than a formal peace treaty, North Korea has been a puzzle to its neighbors and a thorn in the side to the United States. It's closest ally today is China, but it has resisted even China's suggestions to scale back its nuclear ambitions and open its economy to allow free markets to replace the disastrous Juche policies that have impoverished the country and led to the starvation of as many as 2 million of the country's 23 million citizens.

At the same time, the country's leaders have repeatedly thwarted diplomatic efforts to stabilize the Korean peninsula by cleverly playing off more powerful countries against each other while relentlessly pursuing the production of weapons of mass destruction and selling nuclear technology to rogue nations like Iran and Syria. North Korea's current transition is clearly likely to usher in a period of heightened risk and instability in the region, and if Kim Il Eun chooses to continue on the course set by his father and grandfather, the dangers that poses for the U.S. and its allies will only get worse as time goes on.

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