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Peril or Promise in North Korea?

MADRID – Two days after Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader, died in a train in his country, South Korean authorities still knew nothing about it. Meanwhile, American officials seemed at a loss, with the State Department at first merely acknowledging that press reports had mentioned his death.

The South Korean and US intelligence services’ inability to pick up any sign of what had happened attests to the North Korean regime’s opaque character, but also to their own deficiencies. American planes and satellites watch North Korea day and night, and the most sensitive intelligence-gathering equipment covers the frontier between the two Koreas. Nonetheless, we know very little of that country, because all vital information is restricted to a small group of leaders obsessed with secrecy.

The leadership change is occurring at the worst possible time. It is known that Chinese leaders had hoped that Kim Jong-il would survive long enough to consolidate support among the country’s various factions for the succession of his son, Kim Jong-un.

All of the symbolic attributes of power have been transferred to Kim Jong-un – reflected in his official position in the funeral ceremonies, his presidency of the Military Commission, and his assumption of the ruling party’s highest rank – with remarkable speed. But such trappings will not make the transition process any easier for a young man of less than 30 in a society where veteran military chiefs retain so much power.