The United States, South Korea and other nations can only stand by as the drama of succession plays out in North Korea.
Now that the "Dear Leader" of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, is gone, what happens next?
The fact is that no one knows, but that won't keep experts from speculating and governments including the United States from trying to divine the best course in approaching the succession of power in the country. The stakes are big.
For more than 60 years, North Korea has exerted an influence far above its status as one of the most impoverished countries in the world, a country wracked by starvation and shortages of material goods whose leaders chose to cut it off from the world and often refused help when it was offered.
North Korea is a failed country. But it's a failed country with a giant, well-equipped military and nuclear weapons, and thus poses a major threat to its neighbors such as South Korea and Japan, two staunch allies of the United States. Indeed, the possession of nuclear weapons by an unpredictable rogue state such as North Korea makes it a problem on the world stage.
Kim Jong Il apparently died last Saturday after suffering a massive heart attack on a train. In an indication of how closed North Korea is to the outside world, neither the United States nor South Korea knew about his death for at least 48 hours.
Kim Jong Il himself took power after his father, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994. Kim Il Sung founded North Korea more than 60 years ago and led his country into the invasion of South Korea that started the Korean War. After the cease-fire, he consolidated his power and ruled his country with an iron fist. To the people of North Korea, he became a mythic figure.
Kim Jong Il had the benefit of many years of grooming by his father for leadership. He was a survivor in a country constantly on the verge of collapse. He played his best card, nuclear weapons, to maximum advantage against the U.S. and other countries.
By contrast, he had picked his third son, Kim Jong Un, to be his successor only about a year ago, and little is known of the son's background or abilities.
No one knows if he has the political skills to achieve the backing of the powerful military and political figures he needs to cement his rule. In one important sign, China, about the only country with any influence over Pyongyang, has given its blessing and asked North Koreans to unite behind Kim. China's foreign minister also pledged to keep in contact with the U.S. and South Koreans about the situation. The three countries pledged to remain in close contact on efforts to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.
The legacy of North Korea's Communist dynasty is grim: a brutal totalitarian state where people disappear into prison and work camps; an army-first policy where scarce resources go to a military 1.1 million strong — the fifth largest in the world — and militaristic tendencies that make it a threat to its neighbors; a suffering population where malnutrition and starvation are rampant — as many as 2 million may have died in a famine in the 1990s alone; a pariah state on the world scene with nuclear weapons.
We can hope for a peaceful transition of power in North Korea to Kim Jong Un, that eventually the new leader "will be open to bringing North Korea out of the dark ages and stop playing the role of provocateur on the Korean peninsula," as Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Monday in Champaign. But the fact is that we don't know, and we have virtually no intelligence and little influence on events in that country.