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Whither North Korea?

SEOUL – According to North Korean state television, the heart attack that killed Kim Jong-il on December 17 was “due to severe mental and physical stress from overwork.” That report instantly raised a question in my mind: if we accept the regime’s diagnosis, why did Kim need to work so hard, despite his frail health? In some sense, his sudden death seems to symbolize the helplessness of a desperate leader confronting overwhelming challenges.

Seen in this light, the more important question is whether or not Kim’s inexperienced son, the twenty-something “Great Successor” Kim Jong-un, will be able to consolidate power and somehow steer the country out of its deep malaise. So far, the succession in Pyongyang seems to be proceeding in an orderly fashion. But, despite appearances, few totalitarian regimes, save those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, have ever maintained a monolithic inner circle of power. North Korea is unlikely to be an exception to this rule.