In the two weeks since the death of North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, it seems we have swung from fears of nuclear Armageddon to "All My Children." Speculation on what really makes Kim Jong Il tick, and gossip about reputed palace intrigue between him and his stepmother, half-brother and uncle, have dominated assessments of North Korea. It is great fun--and mostly beside the point.
Whether or not Kim Jong Il is a Scotch-swilling playboy hooked on Daffy Duck cartoons, a ruthless terrorist or a cool technocrat--or all the above--there are certain political and economic imperatives driving North Korean behavior that offer a more useful framework for understanding what's going on.
It is these larger issues, the interplay between North Korean political dynamics and efforts to resolve the nuclear issue that will shape the answer to the $64,000 question: Is North Korea now more or less likely to agree to a deal ending its nuclear-weapons program? Will the new regime in Pyongyang reprocess the fuel rods sitting in cooling ponds and obtain enough plutonium to make four or five nuclear bombs? Or will it cooperate in the disposal of the rods?
So far, events have not been revealing. The funeral and transition have seemingly gone according to script. A socialist family dynasty may seem odd, but Kim Jong Il is the designated successor to the only leader North Korea has known since 1945. Although he lacks the nationalist credibility of his father, Kim Jong Il is the principal source of what shreds of political legitimacy remain in North Korea. Any clique seeking power would almost certainly have to operate in his name, at least in the first months following the transition. Indeed, the range of possibilities runs from Kim Jong Il being a mere figurehead of a coalition of party-bureaucratic-military forces to being its leader.
The dictator's death has not altered Pyongyang's basic problems: a failing political system; an economy that has grown roughly 5% in the last four years; a population asked to eat only two meals a day; desertion of its longstanding allies, Moscow and Beijing, and isolation from the information age and East Asian economic miracle.
But the nuclear issue remains the determining factor. The powers-that-be in North Korea face the same grim choices: They can continue their nuclear-weapons program and face even greater isolation, U.N. sanctions and almost certain collapse; or they can trade their nuclear ambitions in for a package of political and economic engagement with the United States and the broader international community. The latter course would require the most totalitarian, hermetically sealed society on Earth to open up, thus jeopardizing the political futures of the leaders who would take that road.
Yet, despite its frequent characterization as a "crazy state," North Korea may be more rational than commonly thought. The elite of Kim Jong Il's generation appear perplexed about which course to follow. Diplomatically, they play a terrible hand quite brilliantly. After all, for two years, they have danced diplomatic circles around Washington, defying the non-proliferation regime with impunity.
What's more, in moves associated with Kim Jong Il, even as the nuclear drama unfolded, Pyongyang devised new foreign-investment, tax and foreign-currency laws and established Chinese-style special economic zones. Their objective is to lure foreign capital and technology to revive the moribund economy without risking political control.
So far, efforts to attract outside investment have had few takers. But that Pyongyang is toying with reform, however haltingly, suggests two things: they are listening to advice from Beijing, and some segments of the elite are aware of their system's failings.
The problem is that the regime has not adopted internal market incentives or loosened control over the economy, as have China and Vietnam. Pyongyang has been equally unwilling to relax its hold on information: Although South Korean companies would be prime candidates to invest in the North, there are no direct commercial-phone or mail services between the two.
It is certainly arguable that improving the living conditions of the 22 million North Koreans will be a factor in whatever legitimacy a post-Kim Il Sung regime attains. But therein lies the central dilemma confronting Pyongyang: If it doesn't open up, it is doomed; if it does open up, it may lose political control and suffer an ignominious fate like that of Kim Il Sung's old friend Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania.
What does all this have to do with the nuclear issue? Plenty. If the North is unwilling, or unable, to reform and open up, even in a limited way, and begin a course of economic interaction with the West, then neither the Clinton Administration nor South Korea nor Japan, nor all combined, can ever muster enough incentives to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear-weapons program.
The hypotheses swirling around Kim Jong Il will soon be tested by the momentum of events: Will he reprocess the fuel rods? How will he respond to a U.S. package deal and when U.S.-North Korea negotiators meet Aug. 5 in Geneva? Will he hold the North-South summit his father proposed? Until we have answers, do what Ronald Reagan once said of the Soviet Union: Trust, but verify.*