The death of North Korea’s longtime ruler, Kim Jong-il, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to settle the conflict on the Korean Peninsula and bring North Korea into the community of nations.
When long-serving rulers pass from the scene, their successors have the occasion to choose whether to start afresh and settle long-standing conflicts or to continue down the same failed paths as their predecessors. In the case of North Korea, persistent hostility with South Korea and the outside world generally is a convention based on historical factors that no longer are relevant. It has contributed to the emergence of other troubling issues, such as nuclear and missile proliferation, which have a highly negative global impact.
North Korea cannot survive much longer without a genuine outreach to the rest of the world. Its economy is pitiful and its people beset by starvation. The old-guard ruling class is riven by internal jealousies and united in fear of an imagined external threat. Pyongyang wastes tremendous amounts of its fading national wealth on military expenditures that have no practical use or benefit. While other countries seek global integration and prosperity, North Korea remains mired behind barbed-wire fences and decades of stagnant thinking.
Mr. Kim’s anointed successor, third son Kim Jong-un, faces many challenges in taking over the family leadership post. He is young and relatively inexperienced in the complex ways of Pyongyang politics. There is a 40-year age gap between him and the core party and military leaders, who are in their 60s and 70s. Preparation for his ascent to power only began in earnest after the elder Mr. Kim suffered a stroke in 2008, and Kim Jong-un was publicly named the heir apparent in September 2010.
It was significant that the official press release announcing Kim Jong-il’s death omitted the honorific “Dear Leader” and did not refer to North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung in the customary manner as “Great Leader,” perhaps because no similar title has been determined for the third-generation leader other than “successor,” and he would appear diminished by comparison. Last week at a conference in Tokyo, North Korea-watcher Kim Young-hwan predicted a “less than 10 percent” chance “of the Kim Jong-un succession system being established smoothly,” and “the chance of the basic succession system itself being maintained while coming up against various serious difficulties is around 20-30 percent.” In other words, anything could happen. The future is uncertain, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The challenges of dynastic succession provide the young Mr. Kim a historic opportunity to prove his leadership ability by embarking on a bold new course of openness. Momentum for this policy shift was building already. The United States was poised to end a three-year moratorium on food aid to North Korea, and there were reports that Pyongyang was prepared to announce a suspension of uranium enrichment. Surely the rest of the world would greet signs of outreach from the North with goodwill and ample pledges of assistance. The opening is there if Mr. Kim is bold enough to take it.
The Washington Times