THE sudden death of Kim Jong-il changes North Korea, in Donald Rumsfeld's useful phrase, from a known unknown to an unknown unknown.
With Kim senior we knew where we were -- to some extent: the old trickster liked to keep us guessing. But his son is a blank -- so far. Anything is now possible. The range of scenarios runs from benign to apocalyptic.
The world wants North Korea to come in from the cold and embrace peace and reform. That seems unlikely. The Kim regime is heavily invested in an avowed military-first policy, and in continuity -- despite marching down a cul-de-sac. The mighty Korean People's Army (KPA), whose clout grew under Kim Jong-il, has much to lose from any outbreak of peace.
China is the key power. It could have been South Korea, had not President Lee Myung-bak's hard line eclipsed the former sunshine policy of engagement.
That was ill-advised, for it left Seoul with no influence in Pyongyang -- which retaliated viciously, sinking a Southern ship and shelling an island last year. And it left a vacuum, which Beijing hastened to fill.
The Chinese will press for economic reforms, and probably get them -- at long last. Boosting a broken economy is one way for Kim Jong Un to make himself more popular. But the fear is that he, or the generals behind him, may instead choose to make a splash with a provocation.
That could be a fresh nuclear test or long-range missile launch. More risky, as hopefully they realise in Pyongyang, would be another attack on South Korea. That would be third time unlucky. With two elections upcoming, President Lee cannot afford to look weak. This time Seoul would strike back, hard -- with the risk of hostilities escalating.
The death of Kim Jong Il could put a brake on talks aimed at getting the secretive communist state to give up its nuclear weapons programme.
The supreme leader's untested third son and successor, is unlikely to risk any step that could be construed as weakness as he seeks to consolidate control.
Even before his father's death, the United States and others have said they viewed the power transition as a dangerous time -- when the ascendant Kim Jong Un could seek to demonstrate his leadership credentials through martial and provocative actions, such as a military attack on South Korea or a nuclear test.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency yesterday reported that the North conducted at least one short-range missile test yesterday, just hours after announcing the death of the nation's leader.
South Korean military officials said the test was routine drill and had little to do with Kim's passing.
While Washington would deny any connection, food aid could serve as a sweetener for getting the North to agree to terms for a resumption of the disarmament talks.
But with Kim Jong Il's death, negotiations with the United States -- which retains about 28,000 troops across the border in South Korea -- are likely to be put on hold, as the North enters months of intense mourning for the Dear Leader.
Another dilemma for South Korea, and its allies, is what to do in the event of instability in the North.
As the authoritarian dynasty enters its third generation, North Korea is struggling to feed its own people and has recoiled from reform of its struggling command economy. Despite rising trade and cooperation with chief foreign backer China, the nation's future is in doubt.
"The most likely scenario for regime collapse has been the sudden death of Kim (Jong Il). We are now in that scenario," said Victor Cha, a former US National Security Council director for Asian affairs.
The White House's initial, brief reaction to the North Korean state media report of Kim Jong Il's death on Saturday emphasised regional security, saying that the US was in close touch with its allies, South Korean and Japan. "We remain committed to stability on the Korean peninsula, and to the freedom and security of our allies," a statement said.
Will Pyongyang's elite really entrust their future to an untried youth, with only his genes to recommend him?
Hitherto, North Korea has maintained a remarkable facade of seeming unity. But behind that, the stresses are growing greater. Some in Pyongyang would like to come in from the cold. Kim Jong-il's death could be a unique opportunity for them to break ranks. Or conversely, military hardliners may seize overt power, shoving the boy figurehead aside, if they fear that the old system and their privileges may be at risk. No one will ask the North Korean people what they think, but their immense suffering might finally find a political voice. If North Korea becomes unstable, one faction or another may seek succour from an outside power. That could be China, South Korea, or Russia. (But not Japan, the still-hated former colonial power, which no longer even trades with North Korea.)
In that case an already dangerous flashpoint would become yet more so. Naturally, South Korea and its US ally have plans for a variety of contingencies in the North. Some of these would involve military intervention, especially to secure any loose nuclear weapons.
Equally naturally, China, with its long porous border with North Korea, also has its own contingency plans for intervention. So far as is known, planner hath not spoken unto planner (it would be top secret if they did).
In what will already be a fraught transition, the prospect of US and Chinese forces once again confronting each other on the peninsula -- as they did half a century ago -- hardly bears thinking about. One Korean war was more than enough.
Anything could happen in North Korea. For now the rest of the world can do little more than watch, hoping that a bad situation does not become worse. To that end, discreet consultation between Seoul, Washington and Beijing is essential. But don't expect to hear about it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)