EDITORIAL: Cooperation needed to prevent chaos in Pyongyang
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has died.
Under Kim's rule, North Korea developed nuclear weapons, ignoring international rules. Its economy is in tatters, with people suffering from acute food shortages. The country also abducted many Japanese citizens and still repeatedly violates human rights. Its government strictly controls the information made available to the public.
Kim was a dictator who held absolute power in this outlandish and outrageous country.
It is still unclear how the transition of power will play out in the secluded nation. But there is no doubt that Kim's death offers an opportunity for North Korea to change itself dramatically. At the same time, however, it creates a precarious situation that could throw the nation into serious turmoil.
There have been no signs of unsettling developments in the country, at least so far.
But South Korea and the United States have put their armed forces on emergency alert. Japan and other countries concerned should work in close cooperation in dealing with any situation that may arise following the dictator's death.
It seems that Kim died suddenly. According to local media, he suffered a heart attack on a special train as he was traveling to the country during an "on-site guidance" tour, a practice that was introduced by his father, Kim Il Sung, who founded the country after the end of World War II.
Three generations of hereditary rule
Kim was long one of the world's most enigmatic leaders.
He was chosen as the successor to his father in a secret meeting of the Korean Worker's Party in 1974 and appeared in public for the first time in the party convention in 1980.
Kim solidified his grip on power by taking advantage of his father's powerful backing and established a dictatorship based on a personality cult like that of a feudal dynasty.
Kim drastically changed his image as a leader who remains behind the scenes through a series of high-profile diplomatic actions he started taking in 2000.
As a starter, he met with then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in the first summit between the leaders of the two Koreas. His spirited exchanges were televised and immediately earned the North Korean leader a reputation as a person well informed about international affairs. Kim Jong Il also met with the leaders of both China and Russia, as well as a U.S. Secretary of State. He held talks with then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi twice.
Kim's diplomacy was described as "brinkmanship diplomacy" or "saber-rattling diplomacy" because he used his nuclear and missile programs as leverage to extract concessions from other countries.
Kim also started diplomatic efforts to build a formal relationship with the United States and revive his country's dilapidated economy as a way to maintain his autocratic regime. But he died before achieving the goals.
His third son, Kim Jong Un, has been groomed as his anointed successor.
The younger Kim may not assume the official leadership posts held by his father until after the period of national mourning expires.
But the dictator's son is likely to attain supreme power as a third-generation hereditary ruler--a striking anomaly in a country that claims to stand for socialist principles.
The process of the transition of power to Kim Jong Un, who has yet to turn 30, began only three years ago when his father suffered a stroke.
In stark contrast, Kim Jong Il had some 20 years to solidify his position as the successor to his father.
It is probably reasonable to assume that the nation will be under de facto collective leadership for the time being. A group of close aides will support the younger Kim's rule behind the scenes while ensuring that the new leader will stand at center stage.
We cannot, of course, tolerate North Korea's nuclear tests and test-firing of ballistic missiles. We also cannot overlook Pyongyang's attempt to intimidate the international community by suddenly launching an artillery attack on a neighboring country. We are opposed to the country's system of keeping a close watch on citizens and sending anyone it doesn't like to dreadful concentration camps.
Road map to get rid of North Korea's nukes
The demise of the dictator should not be allowed to unsettle North Korea and destabilize surrounding areas.
Is it possible that Kim's death will trigger a fierce power struggle within the military or among the party elite during the period of transition?
It has long been assumed that North Koreans, despite their deep anger and resentment over their destitution and the regime's tight control on their lives, are unable to organize themselves because of close mutual surveillance. But is it possible now that people in the country will put up organized resistance against the regime and flee the country as refugees in droves?
Such confusion must be averted at any cost.
The big question now is whether North Korea will make serious efforts to improve its relations with neighboring countries in order to attain economic and social stability at home.
To tackle the formidable challenges it is facing, North Korea needs to shift its foreign policy toward cooperation with other countries and change itself into a country that respects international rules and follows common sense.
The international community has an important role to play in leading Pyongyang in the right direction. In dealing with this erratic nation, other countries should put the priority on ensuring that the nuclear materials produced and stockpiled by the regime will be strictly controlled to prevent their proliferation.
First of all, the six-party talks that have mapped out a plan for North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions should be put back on track. Then, concrete steps should be taken according to the plan.
The issue of North Korea's development of nuclear weapons has gained more urgency as the country has admitted to enriching uranium.
Kim Jong Il died just when the United States and North Korea were beginning to take the first step toward breaking the current impasse. But this window of opportunity should be taken to resume talks over Pyongyang's nuclear ambition.
Solving the abduction issue
Cooperation among the countries concerned is crucial for preventing confusion in North Korea.
China is North Korea's largest ally, while the United States holds the key to the country's national security.
Russia is raising its economic profile in the Far East, while South Korea, which is pursuing a vision of future unification of the Korean Peninsula, is directly affected by what is happening in the North. All the countries concerned should work together in dealing with North Korea through a combination of pressure and dialogue.
Japan, also a victim of Pyongyang's abduction of foreign nationals, has a direct interest in peace and stability in the region.
North Korea has made no serious effort to honor its promise three years ago to carry out a fresh investigation on the fate of Japanese citizens it abducted decades ago. There has been no progress either in the talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang toward establishing a formal diplomatic relationship.
Japan should develop a new strategy to find a way to make real progress toward a solution of the abduction issue.
Japan needs to prepare itself to make flexible and bold responses to any significant changes that might happen in North Korea.