Nervous look into Kim's twilight zone
The countdown has begun on the demise of Kim Jong-il's regime in North Korea, opening up the prospect of a time of dangerous uncertainty.
The commanding general of US forces in South Korea sounded the most ominous warning heard in recent months when he told Congress recently that Washington and Seoul must 'be mindful of the potential for instability in North Korea' if Kim dies or is ousted.
General Walter Sharp said: 'Combined with the country's disastrous centralised economy, dilapidated industrial sector, insufficient agricultural base, malnourished military and populace, and developing nuclear programmes, the possibility of a sudden leadership change in the North could be destabilising and unpredictable.'
Evidence leaking out of secretive Pyongyang and analyses done outside North Korea suggest that a sort of gotterdammerung - a concept drawn from German mythology meaning 'the twilight of the gods' - is under way. The term conjures up a turbulent end to a regime and the collapse of a society into catastrophic violence.
It seems particularly appropriate for the dynasty, since Kim, like his father, Kim Il-sung, has assumed an almost divine status at the centre of a cult. In turn, Kim Jong-il has been grooming his 27-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, to be his successor. That, however, appears to have generated little enthusiasm in Pyongyang beyond propaganda pronouncements.
But why should anyone outside North Korea care about what happens to the regime? At least four consequences come to mind:
Loose nuclear weapons: no one knows exactly how many nuclear bombs North Korea has, where they are, or what sort of lock and key they are under. The crumbling of the Kim regime could set off a race among the South Koreans, Americans and Chinese - and possibly the Russians - to secure those devices before they fell into the wrong hands.
Flying missiles: a desperate Kim could fire off a salvo and cause many deaths and much destruction, including to the US and foreign community in Seoul and other cities, before South Korean and US forces could eliminate the North Korean arsenal of explosive, chemical and biological warheads.
Streaming refugees: the breakdown of order in North Korea, coupled with starvation and disease, could send streams of refugees into China, Japan and South Korea. Would North Korean guerillas or terrorists be among them?
Skyrocketing costs: serious assessments put the cost of restoring order, rehabilitating the broken economy and integrating the two halves of the peninsula far beyond that of German reunification. Who would pay?
One South Korean newspaper has reported that repression has become so harsh in North Korea that the people are nostalgic for Kim Il-sung. If they long for the dictator who led them into a civil war in which 1 million North Korean civilians and 520,000 soldiers died, things today must be horrendous.
Richard Halloran is a former foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington for The New York Times