North Korea celebrated what is officially the 70th birthday of its leader Kim Jong-il on Wednesday. There is no guarantee that Kim, suffering from the aftereffects of a massive stroke compounded by chronic kidney problems and cardiovascular disease, will live to see his birthday next year.
The Kim dynasty, launched in 1948 when Kim Il-sung took power, has lasted for 46 years. Nobody can be sure how long Kim Jong-il, who became the leader in 1994, will rule, but it is certain that the end is near.
News about Kim Jong-il's three sons has been making headlines. His eldest son Jong-nam (40) has been drifting around China and Macau, clad in designer clothes and sunglasses, after being deported from Japan for attempting to enter it on a forged passport in 2001. The second son Jong-chol (30) was recently spotted in Singapore with an entourage, staying in a suite at a five-star hotel for a week and watching an Eric Clapton concert from the VIP section. The suite cost W600,000 (US$1=W1,120) per night and the concert W350,000 a seat. The third son Jong-un (28) is being groomed to succeed his father and was recently appointed vice chairman of the regime's powerful National Defense Commission.
The Kim dynasty rules over 24 million North Koreans. But Kim Jong-il's sons, who act like the spoiled brats of rich businesspeople, are likely to squander what remains of the country their grandfather built. When East European governments collapsed one by one in the late 1980s, there was speculation that North Korea would face a similar fate. They were wrong, but North Korea has become more isolated and its economy more moribund than ever.
What will trigger the end of the North Korean dictatorship? What is Seoul doing to prepare for reunification after more than six decades of separation? Previous cases of toppled dictatorships around the world fail to provide answers, because the situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula has changed so much.
The situation in East Germany was quite different when it collapsed. At that time, U.S. President George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev maintained communication via telephone. But today, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao do not maintain such close ties. And at the time, the U.S. had effectively won the Cold War, but now China is emerging as a strong challenger to America's global dominance. At a point in time with no historical markers or maps, the South Korean government and its people must be ready to find the answers themselves.