The Death of Kim Jong Il: A Nightmare Before Christmas

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a welcoming ceremony in Pyongyang on Oct. 2, 2007

Death came by way of physical fatigue, as Pyongyang's official news agency had it. But Kim Jong Il had worn out his welcome again and again on the international stage, claiming attention only by way of nuclear powder puffs and tremors as well as the constant threat of taking out one of the world's major economic powers, South Korea, the miracle mirror image of his own depressed and dark North Korea.

How he really died — of natural causes or of, well, intervention of a military or conspiratorial sort — will help determine the nature of the successor regime. To have legitimacy, whatever that means for North Korea, the new government will be headed by his son Kim Jong Un, already designated the heir in elaborate if cloudy rituals toward the end of 2010. The fear is that the new leader, who is only in his 20s, may be required to show his teeth and cold-bloodedness as proof that he has come of age. How that manifests itself is the stuff of nightmares for Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, Moscow and Washington.

Famine and economic collapse have always threatened to erode the totalitarian steel underpinning the Kim dynasty. And such anxieties have always put Seoul and the dynamic industries of South Korea at risk. As much as the North has used the South as a hostage — the South Korean capital being almost literally a stone's throw away from the demilitarized zone — successive governments of Seoul have been moved by blood ties as well as willful denial that Pyongyang might actually visit the prosperous cities of the South with destruction. The next few weeks and months will likely be nerve-racking for the South Koreans.

They will be a great annoyance and drain on Beijing as well. The People's Republic has enough to worry about as it tries to balance its planned economy against the rest of the world's shaky one. If North Korea implodes — either by misbehaving violently or collapsing politically and in humanitarian terms — then Beijing may be forced to intervene. China hasn't really intervened successfully in another country in decades. If Pyongyang collapses, a nightmare scenario might require the Chinese army to walk in to re-establish control. China already has a sizable ethnic Korean population in the old Manchurian provinces. That will exacerbate several dormant problems — including relations with South Korea, which are already bad in the wake of a fishing incident last week.

Japan is always watchful for stray missiles from North Korean territory. It also has an enormous stake in economic stability in the region, given its own static finances. Russia too is keen to keep the peace in the area: some of its major offshore oil developments are there, including one that suffered a bad accident this weekend. Offshore oil is increasingly Russia's source of petroleum as oil fields on the mainland slowly dry up.

As the half-century-old arbiter of stability in Asia, the U.S. must now confront another potential crisis — even as the Obama Administration tries to disentangle itself from foreign broils. The one thing that can be said for Kim Jong Il is that, as troublesome as he might have been, he did not quite start a horrendous war, as his father did. But who knows if Kim Jong Un will take after his grandfather?