Jacob Heilbrunn

The Mad World of North Korea and Kim Jong-il

A stock tip for the New Year: if you own shares of Hennessy Paradis cognac, you might want to consider selling. The dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, who just shuffled his mortal coil, was one of its biggest buyers.

The demise of Kim is something of a loss for foreign-policy experts. He made for good copy. He knew how to live it up in the grand, dictatorial style, reminiscent, in a way, of old Hollywood, where money is no object and a potentate can indulge his every fantasy. The women (sometimes kidnapped from Japan), the booze, the swanky home near Pyongyang that apparently had a racetrack and an artificial lake. This is in marked contrast to Stalin and Hitler, both of whom led fairly ascetic lives and were consumed with power rather than its perks and its privileges. It was their subordinates—Beria driving around Moscow at night to kidnap women, Yezhov with his collection of women's panties, Hermann Goering with the feudal hunting estates—who lived as large as they could.

Now his third son, Kim Jong-un, is supposed to keep the claptrap enterprise known as the state of North Korea going. He has not displayed any of his old man's prodigious appetites. On the other hand, he has not had the chance. If he successfully stakes his claim to power, he might prove quite different from his father.

For one thing, will he become a reformer? Around the world the dicatator business is not what it was. The opportunities are fewer and less inviting. The Arab world is changing. The House of Assad looks to be crumbling. Even the Burmese Generals appear to be throwing in the towel. Vladimir Putin himself may be headed for retirement sooner than he would like. Admittedly, North Korea holds some special cards. For one thing, it has remained virginal when it comes to the Internet. Its population, cowed into submission, has been infantilized about the outside world. The country is more Stalinist than Stalin's Russia ever was.

What would really need to be arranged to create a soft landing in North Korea is a buyout. South Korea, Japan and the United States would have to create a fund to ensure a cozy retirement for the ruling magnates. The danger is that they will engage in increasingly provocative behavior to secure their hold on power. For South Korea, the ultimate nightmare is a sudden collapse in which millions of refugees come streaming over the border to sample the delights of the West that their leaders have denied them for decades. Of course, the last thing China or Japan wants is a single Korea—a geopolitical nightmare for both. In this case, two is better than one.

For President Obama, the likelihood of a succession crisis could be a disaster. It introduces a new imponderable into the election that could well make the debate over Iran look like a sideshow. An active military conflict between North and South Korea would throw the world into a new Great Depression and draw in outside powers. Just as America pulled out of Iraq, a new potential hotspot looms in Asia. How Obama handles it could prove the biggest test of his presidency.