Yuri Irsenovich Kim, known to most as Kim Jong Il, died on Saturday, reportedly of a heart attack, ending a 15-year reign over the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Kim's 27-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, was declared the "great successor" by state media, in a choreographed and rehearsed move three years in the making, since the elder Kim's 2008 stroke first raised the need for a proper succession plan.
With the elder Kim's death, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea enters a critical phase, with a unique, once-in-a-generation vulnerability. With a formidable state apparatus, North Korea has watched the revolutions of the past few decades closely, each time learning from the weaknesses of other dictatorships and avoiding their mistakes. Corrupt leaders like Nicolai Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and others rose and fell while the Kim dynasty seemed to only grow stronger. North Korea would not have announced the death of Kim Jong Il publicly had they not been supremely self-confident that they were prepared for any resulting instability. Amidst the spread of the Arab Spring, North Korea reportedly moved tanks, barricades, and military units to pre-positioned locations in Pyongyang, just in case.
Veteran North Korea watchers have resigned themselves to the cyclical, predictable nature of North Korea's allegedly unpredictable behavior. Here's what will likely happen: The regime will launch an aggressive provocation of some sort, calling attention to itself. Then it will express a willingness to engage, whether bilaterally or multilaterally, in exchange for sweeteners, usually in the form of released sanctions, humanitarian aid, fuel, or other resources. The regime will negotiate dismantling or removal of whatever the key problem was -- missiles, nuclear facilities, etc -- and claim to have done so, before revealing months later yet another provocation. It goes on and on. The short-range missiles test on the morning North Korea announced the death of Kim Jong-Il fit this pattern well.
But there is a critical opportunity here. In recent years, cracks have begun to show in North Korea's previously flawless presentation. A famine in the mid-1990s took the lives of over one million North Koreans, while economists proved the nation had enough food and resources to provide for its own people. Botched currency reform efforts and poor harvests coupled with international aid shortages led to increasing dissatisfaction among the masses. As South Korea's government switched parties to a less appeasement-minded President Lee Myung Bak, North Korea launched a missile test (April 2009), an underground nuclear test (May 2009), sunk a South Korean warship (March 2010), and shelled a South Korean island and debuted a secret, previously unknown uranium enrichment facility (Nov. 2010). The resulting slew of sanctions and international pressure raised a level of unprecedented pressure on the regime, including aggressive American, European, and U.N. sanctions on key figures and off-shore accounts.
But most of this key progress has been abandoned as the world's attention focused on the U.S. recession, the Euro debt crisis, and the Arab Awakening.
For the past few years, North Korea has been making big plans for 2012. The regime claims that the suffering and hardship of the North Korean people will be rewarded with a "year of prosperity" in 2012 -- the 100th anniversary of birthday of the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung (Jong Un's grandfather). Accordingly, North Korea began hoarding food and resources, and asking close allies, namely China, to help provide significant aid and assistance for the occasion.
It is thus likely that Jong Un will consolidate power and begin gifting these resources to the people, claiming that his leadership brought newfound prosperity. North Korea will not likely launch international provocations in the next critical phase -- Jong Un knows very well that South Korea is not likely to take a third provocation in just over a year sitting down, particularly with Lee in office. Pyongyang thus will embark on false attempts at engagement and dialogue, while taking bought time to consolidate Jong Un's rule, before entering again in North Korea's tried-and-true cycle of provocation, conciliation, and provocation again.