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Transition for the North


After Sunday's news about the death of Kim Jong Il, the same question popped into everyone's head: Before he departed this vale of tears, did the old man ever see "Team America: World Police?"

We know he loved Hollywood movies -- he boasted of owning every single film that won an Academy Award -- and we know he was one the world's great egotists. So could he have really resisted Matt Stone and Trey Parker's satirical puppet blockbuster when he (in marionette form) was one of its main stars?

If Kim had seen "Team America," he would have learned that for all his brutality and bluster and conniving, much of the rest of the world saw him as a ridiculous figure, too preposterous to fear. And that perception wasn't just limited to puppets -- the South Korean media reported early this year that Kim hid underground for days after last year's provocative shelling against the South, fearful of American F-22 Raptors or warplanes from the carrier USS George Washington. He was willing to throw fits and provoke his enemies, but nothing came before protecting his own neck and his own hold on power.

The other thing that came to mind after seeing the bulletins was fear that Kim's heir apparent, young Kim Jong Un, might resort to provocations and saber-rattling to solidify his new hold on power in Pyongyang. Everybody has a different way of shoring up support: For American politicians it's threatening to shut down the government or default on the national debt; for North Korean leaders it's attacking the South or threatening Japan. The North reportedly has already test-fired short-range missiles since the announcement of Kim senior's death, and the White House announced early Monday that President Obama has already been on the phone with his counterpart in Seoul.

Per the official statement:

At midnight tonight, President Obama spoke with Republic of Korea President Lee Myung-bak to discuss the situation on the Korean Peninsula following the death of Kim Jong Il.  The President reaffirmed the United States’ strong commitment to the stability of the Korean Peninsula and the security of our close ally, the Republic of Korea.  The two leaders agreed to stay in close touch as the situation develops and agreed they would direct their national security teams to continue close coordination.
Per Twitter reports, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey was taking largely the same wait-and-see approach: He told troops in Germany it was just too soon to know how Kim's death would affect the American military posture in the South, but that the troops there shouldn't start packing their bags.

As ever, no one in the world knows what the North is going to do except a handful of old guys in the North, if they even do. Based on reports Sunday, the government apparently waited almost two days before it announced Kim senior's death, "perhaps a sign that the leadership was struggling to position itself for what many believe could be a particularly perilous transition," as The New York Times wrote.

The other problem is that no one knows whether Kim Jong Un, the North's "Brilliant Comrade," has what it takes to step into his father's shoes and run the rodeo he left behind. Even a relatively short period of indecision or weakness or tumult in the capital -- if there's a power struggle, or if the younger Kim misjudges how much support he enjoys in the army -- could lead to a crisis on the peninsula. Thousands of starving North Koreans could try to use the interregnum to escape across the border into China, or hard-liners or dead-enders in the Army could feel bold enough to launch their own private wars against the South or Japan. Or the whole shootin' match could just fall apart, like the final days of the Soviet Union.

Most likely, however, the North will continue on the course already laid by its Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, who continues to serve as Eternal President of the Republic even these 17 years after his death. It will remain backward, broken and isolated; its people will continue to starve; and under the spirit of "juche," the North will continue to muddle along as the outcast hermit in the family of nations.

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