The North Koreans may be low on food, but they certainly know how to throw a funeral.
I stayed up until 2 am watching last week's mammoth funeral of the "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il, live on TV from North Korea's eerie, snowy capitol, Pyongyang. Giant floats and goose-stepping soldiers made this old Cold War Warrior nostalgic for the 1970's.
What next for the Hermit Kingdom? Kim3 -- Kim Jong Un -- has successfully made the transition to power. The 1.1-million armed forces, the Party, and security organs remain the power behind his leadership.
So far, a power struggle between these groups that could have led to the collapse of the North Korean state has not happened, avoiding South Korea's greatest fear, "unexpected reunification" -- a human tsunami of millions of starving northerners flooding south. Japan harbors similar fears of armadas of North Korean boat people arriving on its shores.
According to the US government and media, North Korea is one of the world's two dangerous "rogue states," along with Great Satan Iran, against whom the neocon war drums now thunder.
However, the advent to power of "Supreme Leader" Kim Jong Un may offer North Korea's uneasy neighbors and the United States an opportunity to defuse many of the peninsula's dangerous tensions and even begin a process of opening the isolated Stalinist state to the outside world -- even though Pyongyang insists nothing will change.
North Korea's usually eccentric, occasionally violent behavior is driven by paranoia, hatred of South Korean Evangelical Christians, fear of invasion, and hunger caused by crop failures. Threatening war is the principal method by which Pyongyang earns foreign currency and food aid.
The North follows Kim Il Sung's credo of "Juche," or total self-reliance and independence. Pyongyang routinely brands prosperous South Korea as an American vassal state, and its current leaders, "traitors."
North Korea remains in a state of war with South Korea and the United States six decades after the Korean War. Having just revisited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating them, and briefly walked into North Korea, I felt the crackling tensions that could erupt any time into full-scale war. The often childish, quite irrational rivalry between North and South were also plainly on view.
North Korea's heavy guns dug into the DMZ have half of Seoul in their range. Kim Jong Il and father Kim Il Sung repeatedly threatened to turn Seoul "into a sea of fire."
The US has hinted it will consider using tactical nuclear weapons against North Korea in the event of war. Nearly 30,000 US troops garrison South Korea; 70,000 more could swiftly intervene there along with powerful US naval and air units. Until recently, South Korea's powerful armed forces were under command of a US four-star general. Even the Soviets weren't so heavy-handed in the Warsaw Pact.
North Korea keeps asking the US to sign a non-aggression pact in which Washington pledges not to attack the North. The North's modest nuclear program was created to deter a US attack by threatening a counter-strike on US bases in South Korea, Japan and Okinawa.
Many South Korean strategists (conservatives excepted) and their Japanese counterparts downplay the nuclear threat from North Korea.
Washington has long refused such a non-aggression pact. Instead, it has ringed North Korea with military forces and imposed a punishing trade embargo that has played a major role in keeping the North in dire poverty. Call the North an Asian Cuba.
The US says North Korea's regime is a brutal, illegitimate despotism with which it will only deal with the greatest reluctance and disgust.
Yet the US supports many nasty dictatorships around the globe, such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Ethiopia. Brutal police state Egypt remains a key US client. If the US really wants to end North Korea's nuclear program, the solution is to sign a non-aggression pact and gradually end US trade sanctions.
Both the US and South Korea should end their frequent, provocative military war games on North Korea's borders. Such posturing led to last year's military clashes and more paranoia in Pyongyang.
In exchange, North Korea will have to end its nuclear program under UN inspection, agree to cease threats against neighbors that are a form of financial blackmail, halve the size of its huge armed forces, move them away from the DMZ, and divert resources to feeding its people. The nightmare Stalinist police state must be reformed.
The hard right in the US will try to block such steps to peace. America's neocons worry that North Korea will supply nuclear and other weapons to Israel's enemies and wants it crushed. South Korea's Christian Evangelical hard right won't end its hostility to Communism.
There will be fierce opposition to change from North Korea's 1.1-million-man military, which would be the first victim of economic reforms diverting spending to industry and agriculture.
The pampered Communist Party would also fight hard against reforms. But even within its ranks there are reportedly Gorbachev-style factions that understand the need to modernize and drag their nation out of the early 1950's.
Washington's national security establishment would also fight hard to keep US forces in South Korea as essential to the security architecture of North Asia and a vital forward base for US military operations in the region.
Even so, Kim Jong Un has a major opportunity to begin defusing 60 years of severe tensions and to begin building up a viable nation with help from China. Besides battling entrenched military and party lobbies, he will have to convince Beijing that North Korea will not fall into the US sphere of influence.
This is the lynchpin of ending hostility with North Korea. China cannot allow South Korea or the US to take over North Korea and implant US bases on China's strategic Manchuria border. If North Korean collapses, Chinese military intervention is highly likely.
US-Chinese agreement on North Korea's strategic future is thus essential.
South Korea toiled its way out of dire poverty four decades ago, creating an economic miracle. Equally industrious, determined North Koreans could do the same today, if given half a chance.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011