In North Korea, where death is far more certain than taxes, Kim Jong Il's eventual departure from this world carries secular consequences. As the ailing dictator celebrates his 69th birthday (or 68th, his age is disputed) -- Feb. 16 is one of the country's two biggest national festivals -- the ghosts of the famine years are once again descending upon his impoverished nation, only this time with noise. For the first time, reports of ordinary North Koreans boldly showing discontent at authorities in different localities are seeping through. Frustrated at the regime's redoubled crackdown on private wealth and market activity, and haunted by the collective memory of mass starvation in the mid-1990s, men, women, peddlers, traders, and even Korean War veterans -- who are among the favored class -- have been protesting on the streets.
The regime may very well continue to maintain control over the population through the distribution of extra grain, ideological indoctrination, manufactured scapegoats -- and of course, brute force. But the end of Kim Jong Il's regime, one way or another, is inevitable. Although Kim's exit will certainly be cause to celebrate, it won't inevitably lead to a happy result; in fact, it could usher in a period of instability that triggers a regime collapse culminating in the unification of the two Koreas, a possibility that will require far more U.S. involvement than President Barack Obama and his advisors may realize.
Most casual observers understand that the differences between North and South Korea are vast. The Kim family regime's attempts at securing an immortal legacy and executing its own brand of economic policy have created a nation of oppressed people surviving in extremis -- a system in which cruel and unusual deaths are often the grim punctuation mark to a life of grinding poverty and "tax-free" bondage to the state. In contrast, beyond North Korea's southern border lies a free and affluent Korea, one that claims sovereignty over the entire peninsula and to which millions of Northerners would move if given the choice. By its mere existence, Seoul poses an omnipresent existential threat to Pyongyang.
What's less commonly known is that the United States has done little to prepare for life after Kim Jong Il. It's true that U.S. and South Korean officials have been quietly discussing a contingency plan for a drastic change in North Korea, dubbed OPLAN 5029 by the Pentagon. But beyond short-term emergency response measures such as securing the North's stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, maintaining public safety, controlling borders, and providing humanitarian aid to displaced North Koreans, making plans for dealing with an alternative post-Kim Korea over the long term is critical to protecting U.S. strategic interests in that vital region of the world. In view of America's political, economic, and human investment in South Korea and Northeast Asia over the past 65 years, it is also a moral imperative.
A power vacuum in Pyongyang will require the immediate dispatch of South Korean and U.S. troops. Next will come other regional powers -- Chinese peacekeeping forces securing the northern areas, followed by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force transporting people and supplies along the Korean coastlines. In the short term, a multiparty international presence north of the 38th parallel under the nominal banner of the United Nations will enforce order and provide aid. But even when the dust from the flurry of human activity and balance-of-power politics settles, the task will not be done.