The death this weekend of North Korea's 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong Il presents many dangers, but also some hopes for lower tensions on the strategic peninsula.
Kim's death was not unexpected. He had been seriously ill with diabetes and cardiac problems that led to a stroke in 2008. His youngest son, 26- or 27-year old Kim Jong Un, was hurriedly groomed for the leadership.
It seems more likely Jong Un will be a figurehead behind whom North Korea's powerful factions -- its military, Communist Workers Party, and security forces -- wield power.
Any real efforts to reform North Korea and alleviate its frightful food and power shortage will mean slashing military spending. North Korea fields the world's second largest armed forces, some 1.2 million, that is huge but armed with largely obsolete weapons and immobile.
Spending cuts would be bitterly opposed by the powerful, pampered military brass.
So the status quo in Pyongyang may be retained. But we can't discount the emergence of a reformist faction from North Korea's opaque leadership, though chances of a Korean Gorbachev seem unlikely. Yet the 24 million desperately poor North Koreans desperately need a revolution.
On my recent visit to the Korean peninsula to shoot a documentary, I was again appalled by the shattering poverty of the North. Its people are small and wizened compared to robust South Koreans. At night, few lights show from North Korea. The North seems a hostile, alien planet.
The Korean peninsula is one of the world's most strategic places: it lies at the nexus of China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and American Pacific power. Some 28,000 US troops remain a permanent garrison in South Korea, backed up by US forces air, land, and sea power in Japan and Guam.
North Korea's eccentric regime is a close, useful ally of China. Beijing wants a stable North Korea outside of the US-South Korean strategic orbit. China's most sensitive military and industrial region, Manchuria, is just across the border from North Korea. Any US intrusion into the North would arouse great alarm in China, as it did in December 1950, during the Korean War.
If a violent power struggle or chaos breaks out in North Korea, Chinese military intervention is possible. Beijing has already issued veiled warnings.
What frightens South Korean strategists the most is not North Korea's small nuclear program, but rather what they call, "unexpected reunification:" the total collapse of the North Korean state, sending millions of starving refugees south across the Demilitarized Zone. South Korea is in no financial position to feed million or, more onerous, build a viable North Korean. In any event, many South Koreans do not want reunification.
Japan also fears waves of Korean boat people heading for its shores. Tokyo prefers a divided to a united Korea, which would be a serious economic rival.
This writer, who has covered Korea for 35 years, has a sense that the most likely scenario will be a combined military-party leadership taking power and slowly moving North Korea away from the Kim dynasty's megalomaniac leadership towards more cooperation with South Korea and better relations with the west.
North Korea has long offered to junk its nuclear program -- which is solely intended for self-defense -- if the US would sign a non-aggression pact with Pyongyang and lift crushing trade sanctions.
Kim's death now presents fruitful opportunities for the US and its Asian allies to engage with North Korea and nudge it towards less paranoid, more economically productive behavior. A US commitment not to set up military bases in North Korea would be a good start and calm China's fears.
Caution, diplomacy, and tact are required in dealing with North Korea right now, not the kind of warlike, imperial bombast coming from many US Republican candidates. As the Chinese say: "great dangers; great opportunities."
North Korea's nuclear weapons are not a threat so long as the North is not attacked or invaded. Washington must drop its obsession with this issue and look beyond.
The Obama administration recently stated that Washington was turning away from the messy Mideast and focusing primary strategic interest on Asia. Well, here is the chance -- just much sooner than anyone expected.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011