There is calm in Northeast Asia. But it is an uncertain calm. The “hermit kingdom” of North Korea remains as reclusive, impoverished and repressive as ever, constituting a potential threat to the region–either through conflict or collapse. The fragility of the country was emphasized over the past couple of weeks with the widely circulating rumors concerning health problems of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il.
Kim Jong-il has exerted absolute rule over the northern part of the Korean peninsula since his father’s death in the 1990’s. His father has ruled over the country since World War II. North Korea is a country that presents unique challenges to the rest of the world. With its self-isolating government, failed economic system and frequent famines combined with a store of nuclear weapons and a large military, there is a great risk of both instability and regime collapse. And a collapsed North Korea would bring further instability to South Korea and China, threatening the security and economies of the region.
This is why the current situation is so frightening. Due to its opaque politics, however, no one really knows who is next in line after Kim Jong-il. Now with the real possibility that he is either dead or extremely ill, who is running the country? It is even more alarming because North Korea probably has one or two nuclear weapons, in addition to long-range missile capabilities. With this uncertain situation, a settlement with North Korea becomes only more vital. The next administration should focus time and energy towards quickly, and finally, making an agreement in the region. We are running on borrowed time.