Bringing North Korea in from the cold offers the best hope for regional peace
Will 2012 offer a continuation of the dangerously sulky stand-off between North Korea and the rest of the world, might the Great Successor Kim Jong-un be tempted into a fiery confrontation to show he is really in command, or might he share the benefits of his Swiss education by opening the country's doors and windows to fresh air and economic benefits from the outside world?
Then again, is Kim really in charge in spite of the profession of loyalty by the military? Can the military refrain from throwing their weight around to test the new leader? Is Jang Song-thaek, the young Kim's uncle by marriage to his father's sister and freshly dressed in a general's uniform, a new kingpin?
Who really knows? But I do lament the failure of diplomacy and imagination by all of the major players that have brought the world to this perilous place.
The extreme poverty of North Korea makes any solution more difficult. When I began the Asia and Pacific Annual Review in 1979, our writers thought North Korea, blessed with better natural resources when the peninsula was split, had a stronger economy than the South. Not any more: South Korea is a US$1.5trillion economy, with per capita income of US$30,000, in 44th position in world rankings, according to the CIA Factbook; North Korea is worth US$40billion with per capita income of US$1,800, 194th in the world.
Bare statistics do not tell the misery of the North Koreans under the Kim dynasty.
The Kims carried economic mismanagement and totalitarianism to new depths. Their success makes the chances of economic or political reform remote unless it comes from deep within Korea, meaning from inside the ruling clique, the Kim family or the military. By the standards of North Korea, Stalin's Soviet Union was open, and China is positively fun-loving and tolerant of dissent.
In North Korea's wretched circumstances, Kim Jong-il played brilliantly, albeit with no sense of responsibility. Given concessions on economic assistance or nuclear negotiations, he devoured them greedily; faced with sanctions, he upped the ante and made money by proliferating nuclear technology.
Anyone in the West should be worried about the lack of understanding of Korea in Washington. Leaked US diplomatic cables quoted a Chinese official as saying that North Korea 'now had little value to China as a buffer state', something far from reality. Zhou Yongkang, the politburo member in charge of security, was on the podium in October when Kim Jong-il made clear Jong-un was his successor.
On America's Republican right, there is a gung-ho ignorance about the rest of the world. Even Mitt Romney, who could probably find Korea on a map, said that Kim's death 'represents an opportunity for America to work with our friends to turn North Korea off the treacherous course it is on'.
What does he expect - an invasion or a CIA-inspired coup? Who are the friends on whom his hopes rest? The European Union, which is not a member of the six-party talks on Korean denuclearisation, seems determined to prove that Europe does not matter.
Within the six-party group, Russia is distracted by domestic demonstrations and seems determined to be suspicious of anything that the US does. Japan, sadly, has little understanding of what a foreign policy initiative might look like. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's suggestion this week that China should share information about North Korea was as positive as we might expect.
China offers a real problem, exacerbated by the deterioration in its relations with the US. Leading Chinese commentators have accused Washington of starting a 'new cold war'. This hostility, with attendant military build-up and mutual general suspicions, is a growing threat to world peace. It should be a matter of worry to all that neither the US nor China understands that this fragile planet cannot withstand great power politics as usual. We need shared solutions and shared pain to immense problems.
On Korea specifically, China could be the best source for bringing North Korea in from the cold. But Beijing has pursued a narrow short-term view, cosying up to the Kims, sustaining them through investment, aid and trade, both legal and illegal.
China is right to be scared. The implosion of North Korea would be bad, with refugees pouring into China and South Korea; an explosion would be worse, with the dreadful prospects of a chain reaction involving the US, a China determined to stop US intervention, South Korea with all its fraternal angst, and Japan fearful of a mess on its doorstep.
One basic problem is that everyone prefers the present appalling situation to what might follow. China and Japan fear the potential might of a united Korea, while Seoul, remembering the unification of Germany, fears the huge costs of putting the Koreas together. Trying to do it over Kim Jong-un's body would raise the bill unacceptably.
But the present is not sustainable. The Kim regime is not sustainable, where a small clique grinds the face of the poor masses. It is time for imaginative and co-operative policies to bring Kim Jong-un in from the cold to become a real hero of the Korean people. But who is going to start the positive talking?
Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator