What does Kim's death mean for East Asia and for the United States?
This is a region that matters. East Asia is the world's major economic hub and a focal point of the Obama administration's global strategy. The 38th Parallel that divides North and South Korea is, moreover, a major geopolitical fault line. On one side is North Korea, backed by China. On the other is South Korea, bound by alliance to the United States. Nowhere, save Taiwan, is regional conflict more likely to embroil the world's sole superpower and its Chinese challenger.
The question is this: Does Kim's death make regional and world politics more or less stable? The future is unknowable, but some perspective may help us to gauge the stakes, especially insofar as American interests are concerned.
We should beware appealing but misleading analogies. It would be premature to predict a "Pyongyang Spring." North Korea is a regime quite different from Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. A Stalinist relic of the Cold War, North Korea is authentically totalitarian -- not just authoritarian -- and far less vulnerable than was Egypt to the challenge of civil society.
The passing of a dictator who has ruled for three decades will be traumatic nonetheless. South Korea and the United States should be prepared for a phase of uncertainty, even testing, across the 38th Parallel.
The more interesting question, though, is where the regime's new masters will go over the medium to long term. The fact is that North Korea has backed itself into an unfavorable corner. It is poor, benighted and dependent on China, its mighty patron. The change in leadership may yet provide an opportunity to plot a new course. Here, the key issue will be how Kim Jong Un positions himself in relation to Beijing. China's rise has, after all, sent other East Asian countries scattering toward Washington.
--Daniel Sargent, assistant professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley.