The news of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s death is akin to a beautifully wrapped holiday present: It’s full of promise, but might turn out to be a huge disappointment.
Like the gift, it might hold the best we could hope for: Freedom for the North Korean people from the political, economic and social bondage they’ve been held in since the country’s founding in 1949.
Kim’s anointed successor, his inexperienced 28-year-old son Kim Jong Un, could open the nearly hermetically sealed country to the outside world, perhaps starting cautiously with its large neighbor and best friend, China.
Pyongyang could liberalize its repressive Stalinist political system, which has now served three generations of Kims, even eliminating their infamous gulags, where “enemies” of the state are sent to die.
North Korea could also toss aside its disastrous, collectivist economic system, which yielded a largely self-imposed famine, stretching back to the mid-1990s, with millions left to starve.
It could also stop spending a third of its limited national budget on nukes, missiles and a million-man army - and make peace with South Korea and the United States.
Sadly, the gift box probably doesn’t hold any of that. The new boss will likely be the same as the old boss, changing little of how things are done in this “socialist paradise” - and will likely continue causing trouble both on and off the Korean peninsula.
That means North Korea will continue its confrontational policies toward South Korea, Japan and the United States. Just last year, the North sunk a South Korean warship and shelled an off-shore island in unprovoked acts of hostility.
Pyongyang will work to hone its ballistic-missile and nuclear-weapon programs, too. It’s already believed to be able to reach the western United States - and may be developing hard-to-detect mobile ICBMs.
When it comes to “trade,” the North will likely carry on its nuclear and missile mischief with Iran, benefiting both parties, and persist in hawking its nuclear and missile wares to places like Syria and Burma.
But it could be worse.
The transition from Papa Kim to Junior may be a done deal, but that’s not certain by any stretch of the imagination. And other all-too-possible scenarios have some ugly consequences.
For instance, Kim Jong Un could feel that he has to show his mettle as the new leader (both internally and externally), undertaking provocations against the United States or South Korea that could spin out of control.
Worse, a power struggle for control of the country could erupt between factions of the Korean People’s Army. Not only might you see armed conflict, but a struggle for control of North Korea’s nukes.
Any such brawl could lead to massive refugee flows, leading to a huge humanitarian crisis - and potential intervention from the outside.
It’s never been exactly clear how China would react to a collapse or an internal conflict next door in North Korea. Let’s hope the world doesn’t find out in the middle of a crisis.
Most likely, the gift box doesn’t hold anything big, whether good (democracy) or bad (civil war). But then again, what’s beneath that holiday wrapping often is a surprise, despite our best guesses. So it’s best to keep our expectations modest, while getting set to deal with whatever gets unwrapped.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here