THE late President Kim Il-sung was masterful at playing off potential opponents, when not killing them, and at exploiting rival suitors. He was no master of economics: there were strong historical factors behind his juche philosophy of self-reliance but it halted economic development and finally sent it into reverse. He managed, however, to construct a facade of progress and purpose that fooled the world for a while, and appears to continue to fool his own people.
North Korea foundered after the end of the Cold War but Kim Il-sung did not lose his touch. In the latest crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear programme, Kim managed to move Washington from a position of threatening his country, to a neutral position of not wishing to reward North Korea for its nuclear programme, to one (with a little help from Jimmy Carter) of offering rewards in return for vaguely worded promises.
However, even the most blinkered Pyongyang official, unlike Mr Carter, can see the economy is in a nose-dive, the country's international relations are a disaster and the military are going to consume increasingly large slices of the diminishing national pie unless something is done. In this situation, the death of Kim, and the apparent assumption of power by his son, Kim Jong-il, could present the leadership with a unique opportunity.
The younger Mr Kim has a choice. He could try settling into the bunker constructed by his father, and picking off his opponents. Or he might attempt to transform the economy according to the Chinese model.
No one expects Mr Kim to stand up and denounce his father. But, if he is politically astute, he could move to open North Korea partially, while claiming to follow in the footsteps of Kim Il-sung, who held highly publicised talks with Mr Carter and agreed to a summit with South Korean President Kim Young-sam in the weeks before he died. And Kim Jong-il could wrap this in the mantle of taking juche to a new stage of development.