Neighbour from hell

The jury appears to be out on the exact state of mind of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, variously regarded when healthy as either cunning like a fox, borderline mad or just pathologically nasty.

It is rumoured that he suffered a destabilising stroke some 18 months ago and, at 68, is ailing. Consequently, the world's only hereditary communist dictatorship seems to be gearing up for succession to the "Dear Leader".

An unusual sitting of the Supreme People's Assembly has coincided with the appointment of a favoured brother-in-law, already extremely powerful as head of intelligence, the courts, prosecutors and police, to vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission and effectively Kim's deputy.

There is also talk of this move favouring the prospects of a young son, Kim Jong-un - thought to be in his late 20s - as the eventual successor.

Nobody knows any of this for sure because of the obsessive secrecy with which this poverty-stricken but nuclear-armed and belligerent north Asian country conducts its business, but flux and uncertainty in Pyongyang power relations can only make the totalitarian regime an even more dangerous prospect for its neighbours South Korea, Japan - and its ally the United States - and to a lesser extent China.

Tensions in the region have been ramped up of late with the sinking of a South Korean warship, Cheonan, and the loss of 45 lives. Seoul contends it has evidence that the North was responsible. The North has denied this and reacted aggressively to the suggestion, including threats of all-out war.

Late last week, South Korea asked the United Nations Security Council to punish North Korea for sinking its ship with a torpedo, but the North, still denying any connection, simply responded with its own tough talking, calling the action "an intolerable provocation".

China, the nearest North Korea has to an ally, is expected to scuttle the achievement of meaningful punishment by vetoing such moves as Seoul's petition in the security council, and has to date spoken only of the need to "defuse tensions" and "avoid possible conflicts", while seeking further evidence on the sinking.

It does not want a conflagration on its back doorstep, but neither does it necessarily welcome an all powerful, US-backed South Korea in the ascendancy on the Korean peninsula.

The problem for the Asia-Pacific region, for the United States and not least South Korea, is the unpredictability of the regime in the North. It is the West's worst nightmare, the neighbour from hell: a nuclear power which appears to operate according to an entirely alien world view.

Had there been serious evidence anywhere else in the world that a submarine of one sovereign nation had arbitrarily sunk a warship of another, in what appears to be an entirely unprovoked incident, the clamour for retaliation or justice would have been deafening.

What makes North Korea such a different prospect? Just a few days after lodging his request for punishment with the UN, South Korean President Lee Myun-bak appeared to be softening his stance, stressing the need for peace.

His problem is striking a balance between strengthening a growing economy - and securing the ongoing investment that requires - and restraining the noisy posturing to the north.

Pyongyang does not appear to operate according to the normal moral or civic qualms of most other civilised countries. Its leadership has proved in the past to be paranoid, insecure, isolationist, oblivious to the poverty and hardship of its own people, militarist by inclination, cultish and ruthless.

Put those qualities into the pressure cooker of an encroaching power vacuum, apply external forces, and there is no telling what might happen.

Even China, the elephant in this particular room, might be unable to prevent an eruption of outright hostilities with its potential progress towards a cataclysmic nuclear conclusion.


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