Decline And Fall of the Old Empire

This time, it's personal. The first fall of Communism, in 1989 and 1990, was institutional. Now, the death of Kim II Sung has marked the beginning of a second decline, one based entirely on the personalities that built the Communist monoliths of the world.

The only major Communist or Socialist leader to lose his life (no females here) in the 1989-90 "Velvet Revolution" was Nicolau Ceaucescu, ex-autocrat of Romania. By 'major', the longtime existence of a self-created cult of personality is implied. Construction teams never finished the huge residential complex that Ceaucescu had commissioned towards his own greater glory. His and his wife's brutal totalitarianism ended with a hail of bullets and mutilation of their corpses.

Meanwhile, the regimes of Kim, Fidel Castro and Deng Xiaoping lived on in relative silence. Kim's death might have been expected to throw his nation into furor. The problem with that theory is simply that he and his government had been planning for the event for years. The ascension of Kim II Sung's son, 52-year-old Kim Jong Il, has been a foregone conclusion for years.

At the same time, one would think that all the dissidents and opposition forces in North Korea would have been waiting eagerly for just this moment. South Korea put its military on alert as soon as the death was announced; could any nation in the world have better intelligence or foresight about the coming events in the North.

Kim Jong Il hardly has a smooth path into power; he's not very well known, appears infrequently in public and all of his credibility stems from his father. North Koreans might embrace him, but only as an impulsive reaction built on years of conditioning. Despite Kim Il Sung's atrocious and violent purges of his enemies, many North Koreans always saw him as a godlike figure of immobile strength. After almost half a century as undisputed leader of a xenophobic nation, such devotion on the part of the public is not surprising.

Kim's death comes at a crucial time in the determination of North Korea's place in the global balance of power. No one could have expected Kim's death to happen so suddenly, especially on the heels of North Korea's progressively easing stance on its nuclear program. If Kim Jong Il indeed makes a smooth transition to the leadership of his country, he will have to deal immediately with the nuclear conflict. Few foreign leaders have met with or even seen the younger Kim, and yet he will have to confront the United States and the United Nations in the near future.

The most important factor in the coming days will be China's attitude towards Kim Jong Il. Kim II Sung had managed to maintain friendly relations with both China and the U.S.S.R. before the collapse of Communism in the West. The younger Kim, who is seen as more brash and capricious than his father, will have to continue to rely on China for support in military preparations and in diplomatic circles. Moves towards genuine independence from the larger nation could render China a fearsome enemy rather than a cautious ally.

The People's Republic of China, though, could itself undergo turbulent change in the near future. Deng Xiaoping is almost 90, and none of the scores of officials who have filed through the high positions of prime minister and president with Deng in the background have had the personal recognition or staying power to match him. Reports of Deng's ill health have come more and more often in recent months, with one even disputed by his daughter in a statement to the international media.

The possible successors to Deng are mostly more liberal than the aging leader, but the dynamics of China's upper echelons of government are still nebulous to observers from the West. Acting alone, China could throw the whole world into ruin. A coordination with North Korea's forces would not achieve much more than a bankhead on the southeast coast of Asia. In any case, North Korea is expendable except as one of three strictly Communist or Socialist nations on the continent.

The United States' reaction to North Korea's initial public move towards nuclear arms--its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty--was to send defensive hardware to Japan. Only grave concerns about North Korea's potential for belligerency could have caused the U.S. to send arms to Japan, a nation whose growing economic predominance has been grudgingly accepted by Americans.

Outside of China and North Korea, only Fidel Castro, another octogenarian dictator, still reigns with the ultimate power of a charismatic tyrant. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's isolation became complete. Castro has not been grooming a successor as obviously as Kim did, nor does he have as huge a party bureaucracy to pick up the pieces when he dies.

If North Korea and Cuba both fall, will China be satisfied to rumble on its own, or will it lash out at the world? When Deng dies and Hong Kong is coopted, will it rumble more quickly towards capitalism? The first of the events in the chain has just taken place; what follows will soon unfold.