The sudden death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il presents the United States with a serious challenge, and the Obama administration will need to work carefully to prevent it from mushrooming into a full-blown crisis.
North Korean state TV announced Kim's death early Monday. The reclusive, 69-year-old leader, who inherited power after his father, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994, reportedly suffered a heart attack Saturday while on a train trip across the country. The government said in a statement that the "Dear Leader" would be succeeded by his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, whom his father appointed as his successor last year.
The younger Kim inherits a family dynasty and a secretive, brutal governing apparatus. But in only his late 20s, and barely a year from coming out from his father's shadow, Kim has hardly had time to consolidate his power base. Pyongyang could be even more unpredictable in the coming weeks and months as Kim and older elements of the military and his father's regime jockey for position. South Korea put its military on high alert and the Obama administration said it would monitor events closely. The United States has 28,500 troops in South Korea committed to Seoul's defense; the immediate priority must be to not send the wrong messages or overreact.
Despite all the elder Kim's bluster, North Korea cracked its doors open when it desperately needed food and other financial assistance. While sanctions have failed to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program, the North has worked recently to lessen its isolation by the international community. Whether the new government continues that tack remains to be seen. Kim might feel the need to flex his muscles at the outset. The unstable situation should be more than enough to induce China, which has an interest in securing its border with North Korea, into helping to broker a stable and quick transition.
The Obama administration may have little leverage, but a willingness to engage on the diplomatic front may go a long way toward establishing a new relationship with North Korea. The last thing anyone should do is inflame the already tense security environment on the Korean peninsula. On that note, the Republican candidates for president should hold their fire, too. Their macho rhetoric thus far over national security and foreign policy is exactly the kind of tough talk the West needs to avoid. Miscalculating in Korea would bring a terrible price. The United States should help effect an orderly transfer of power, then work on bringing the new regime into the modern world.