North Korea long ago mastered the art of brandishing the most potent weapon at its disposal: its credible impersonation of a country that might just be loony enough to start a nuclear war. Its leaders have proven adept at striking fear and harvesting concessions by exploiting the power of uncertainty.
North Korea is stocked with incendiary weapons, but no one really knows how many, or what might cause them to start flying toward, say, South Korea or Honolulu. Worse, no one knows who possesses ultimate authority to shape events inside a nation that -- not for nothing -- is often described as a hermit kingdom.
That last unknown has always been unsettling. How do you pursue policies aimed at avoiding nuclear catastrophe when you don't know who is calling the shots? The uncertainty just got more troubling with the death of North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong Il, triggering the ascension of Kim's little-known son, Kim Jong Un.
For a world pondering the enduring flashpoint that is the Korean peninsula, the questions have become more abundant than ever, while the answers remain disturbingly scarce. Does the younger Kim possess the full backing of the military? Will he feel inclined to prove his nationalist credentials to the generals, perhaps with an incursion into South Korea, or a rain of missiles into the Sea of Japan?
As the third Kim to rule in linear succession, will he continue his family's hallmark tradition of employing nuclear blackmail as its form of engagement with the outside world, ratcheting up conflict to extract sustenance and short-term security? Or will he break from that mold and transform North Korea from a pariah state into a responsible member of the global community?
In Washington, these questions are being picked over by intelligence agents sifting through the often-belligerent pronouncements of North Korea's official channels, plus whatever visuals can be gleaned by satellites peering down on troop movements. Across Northeast Asia, such questions come tinged with the special anxiety of proximity. As any resident of Tokyo or Seoul will tell you, a misunderstanding or military feint gone wrong could result in missiles arcing their way from North Korea and arriving in less than an hour.
All of which means that the abrupt interruption of the status quo inside North Korea seems certain to reinforce the status quo outside its borders.
New variables emanating from North Korea always heighten the possibility of war, so Japan will embrace more than ever the continued presence of American military forces on its soil. Japan will also continue boosting its own naval power (much to the consternation of the rest of Asia, where the mention of Japanese military action provokes bitter memories of World War II.)
Because events to the north are suddenly open to a range of fresh interpretations, South Korea will likewise lean as heavily as ever on American military might, while girding its own forces for conflict.
In China, where the government is already contending with a slowdown in economic growth and worries that a real estate bubble could burst into financial conflagration, the unexpected change of leadership next door presents an additional problem to manage. In the immediate term, China will likely handle this relationship according to prevailing tradition, supporting North Korea as a counterweight to the American forces on the southern half of the Korean peninsula.
As North Korea's ossified state industries have deteriorated, leaving millions of people in a desperate state of hunger, the leadership has derived much of its sustenance -- food and fuel -- from China. This flow will surely continue, if for no other reason than Beijing's intense interest in avoiding another sort of flow: an exodus of North Koreans across the border, adding to the strains in China's impoverished northeastern provinces.
Still, death has a way of revising the historical narrative. Not until China's revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung died in 1976 was the ground set for the eventual market-embracing reforms championed by Deng Xiaoping. Chiang Kai-Shek, the Chinese Nationalist leader routed by the communists, took refuge on the island of Taiwan, where he presided over an authoritarian Chinese government in exile. His son, Chiang Ching-kuo, eventually lifted martial law and ushered in democracy.
So little is known about Kim Jong Un that it would be folly to speculate what his rule will bring, whether he will maintain North Korea's status as a hermetically-sealed state, or perhaps experiment with some form of greater openness.
From thousands of miles away, the best course may seem obvious. He ought to pursue prosperity through the same path forged by leaders throughout Asia, joining the global economy and generating wealth through trade. But from inside the little-understood corridors of power in Pyongyang, global integration is likely to seem laden with grave risk, inviting condemnation -- and perhaps intervention -- from revolutionary-spirited generals.
It would also entail renouncing North Korea's deeply entrenched mode of foreign policy. In the financial sphere, insolvent banks secure public rescue by becoming Too Big To Fail. In the realm of global security, North Korea and the Kim clan have repeatedly cajoled outside powers to hand over sustenance by presenting themselves as Too Insane To Ignore.
Kim Il Sung, North Korea' paramount leader for almost half a century, launched the game of perpetual brinkmanship in the 1990s, when he began developing a plutonium-based nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, in contravention of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. That posture eventually garnered a deal with the Clinton administration, which agreed to a package of aid in exchange for North Korea's promises that it would ice the program.
The deal was signed in the fall of 1994, just after Kim died, putting his son, Kim Jong Il, in power. The new leader proved a worthy practitioner of the family craft. He burnished his image as a hell-bent warrior with proclivities that, to the American eye, made him seem unhinged -- a bouffant hairdo and bombastic sunglasses, a willingness to kidnap South Korean film stars and legendary stories about his playboy tendencies. He seemed like a farcical version of a dictator who would indeed press on all the way to thermonuclear showdown.
A succession of American presidents promised not to reward North Korea's nuclear blackmail, only to do just that.
The Clinton deal soon proved worthless, as North Korea began developing a uranium-based nuclear program. George W. Bush took office and promptly branded North Korea a member of his "Axis of Evil," while pledging not to reward its threats. But as Kim escalated confrontation throughout 2002 and into 2003 -- reinvigorating the Yongbyon plant, evicting international inspectors and finally testing missiles -- Bush assented to multilateral talks that eventually promised fuel in exchange for an end to the program.
The Obama administration has repeatedly sought to reengage North Korea at the bargaining table, with nothing to show for it.
The outside world has bent to North Korea's threats for the simple reason that there are no better options on the menu. North Korea now possesses some form of nuclear capability, having detonated devices in 2006 and 2009, and its missiles sit within easy range of Asian cities that are home to tens of millions of people. A preemptive strike on its arsenal would risk a response that could kill hundreds of thousands of people, making that course a non-starter.
The rest of the world could simply allow North Korea to keep doing what it has been doing, refining its nuclear capability and potentially exporting weapons of mass destruction to other rogue states. In other words, that doesn't work either. The third option is the one every leader reluctantly reaches eventually: talk, pursue a deal, and hope that this time it turns out better.
In Washington and other capitals, hopes endure that China will solve the North Korea crisis. If Beijing were to threaten to end the flow flow of food and fuel into North Korea, it could force its neighbor to behave.
But that logic ignores the fact that China has little desire to serve as handmaiden to American foreign policy, less desire to court a rupture with a regional ally and zero interest in destabilizing North Korea, thus risking an influx of economic refugees into its depressed northeastern provinces.
Which means that the latest iteration of Kim family leadership starts out likely to proceed much as the last two ended.
North Korea confronts a moribund economy, a hungry population and almost complete isolation. It has little to work with save for a proven ability to convince the world that it will not blink in the face of extreme confrontation.
That old strategy could bring Pyongyang enough food to avert famine, and enough energy to keep the lights on. The hope is that Kim Jong Un aims for a legacy beyond that of his father and his grandfather: bringing his people into the modern world.