By Richard Halloran
The countdown has begun on the demise of Kim Jong Il's regime in North Korea, opening up the prospect of a time of dangerous uncertainty.
The commanding general of American forces in South Korea sounded the most ominous warning heard in recent months when he told Congress last week that the U.S. and South Korea must "be mindful of the potential for instability in North Korea" if Kim Jong Il, North Korea's dictator, dies or is thrown out.
Gen. Walter Sharp testified: "Combined with the country's disastrous centralized economy, dilapidated industrial sector, insufficient agricultural base, malnourished military and populace, and developing nuclear programs, the possibility of a sudden leadership change in the North could be destabilizing and unpredictable."
Evidence leaking out of secretive Pyongyang and analyses done outside of North Korea suggest that a sort of gotterdammerung, a concept drawn from German mythology meaning "the twilight of the gods," is under way in North Korea. The term conjures up a turbulent end to a regime and the collapse of a society into catastrophic violence.
Gotterdammerung seems particularly appropriate for the Kim dynasty since Kim Jong Il, like his father, Kim Il Sung, has assumed an almost divine status at the center of a cult.
A question: Why should anyone outside of North Korea care about what happens to the repressive and corrupt regime of Kim Jong Il? At least four consequences come to mind:
Loose nukes: No one knows exactly how many nuclear bombs North Korea has nor where they are nor what sort of lock and key they are under. The crumbling of the Kim regime could set off a race among the South Koreans, Americans and Chinese — and possibly the Russians — to secure those devices before they fell into the hands of a warlord or terrorist.
Flying missiles: A desperate Kim could fire off a salvo of missiles and cause many deaths and much destruction, including to the American and foreign community in Seoul and other cities, before South Korean and U.S. forces could eliminate the North Korean arsenal of missiles with explosive, chemical and biological warheads.
Streaming refugees: The breakdown of order in North Korea, coupled with starvation and disease, could send streams of refugees north across the Yalu River into China, east across the Sea of Japan to Japan, and south to South Korea across the demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula. Would North Korean guerrillas or terrorists be among them?
Skyrocketing cost: Serious assessments and wild guesses put the cost of restoring order in North Korea, rehabilitating the broken economy, and integrating the two halves of the peninsula far beyond that of putting East and West Germany back together, or $2 trillion to $3 trillion. Who pays?
The surging speculation about the fall of the Kim dynasty grows out of repeated reports that Kim Jong Il is in failing health and may have only three years to live. Rising crime rates, spurred by spreading starvation, add to the speculation. The execution of Pak Nam Il, a finance official, as an apparent scapegoat for a ruinous reform of the currency, provides still another clue.
A study of resistance found North Koreans becoming defiant with "everyday forms of resistance," such as engaging in forbidden marketing. A South Korean newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, reported repression has become so harsh North Koreans are nostalgic for Kim Il Sung.
If North Koreans long for the dictator who led them into the Korean War in which 1 million North Korean civilians and 520,000 soldiers were killed, things today must really be horrendous.