Some thoughts are even more disturbing than the idea of Kim Jong Il's controlling an arsenal of poison gas, germ-war cultures and nuclear devices. Like what if the North Korean leader suddenly didn't control those weapons of mass destruction? The question grew urgent last week after Kim failed to show up at a parade marking the Stalinist regime's 60th anniversary. The Dear Leader hadn't appeared in public for weeks, and senior North Korean officials soothed no one's doubts when they broke their usual silence to deny that Kim had suffered a stroke. With no solid information on Kim's health, Washington could only hope North Korea wasn't on the verge of a succession crisis.
That's the last thing the region needs. Kim, 66, a former smoker who's more than fond of good food and drink, has no designated successor. Rivalries at the top might get ugly, South Koreans worry. What really scares them is the North's desperately poor civilian population. If the demilitarized zone were to disappear the way the Berlin wall did, the South's economy would be crushed by the overwhelming poverty of the North.
Despite those fears, Washington and Seoul have no real contingency plans if Pyongyang implodes. "The question has been completely taboo," says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University. "The major players are completely unprepared. The South Koreans don't want to touch it, and the U.S. takes its lead from the South." The closest thing to an emergency protocol was CONPLAN (Concept Plan) 5029, which outlined nonmilitary steps to cope with refugees, WMD risks and other problems if the North fell into chaos. But three years ago the Americans sought to add military measures to the deal, and Seoul said no, citing concerns for national sovereignty. The two sides agreed to "upgrade" the original deal instead.
Still, U.S. officials seemed surprisingly calm. The odds are that Kim is recovering, they said. And if he doesn't, North Korea's ruling circle will likely form a governing committee to take over as smoothly as possible. None of Kim's three sons seems ready to fill his shoes, but the new regime would likely include a token family member if only for the appearance of continuity.
In case of problems, the Bush administration is betting that Beijing and Seoul will go all-out to stabilize things. Neither neighbor wants a flood of refugees, and the Chinese already exert a powerful hold on Kim's country. The North imports more than 80 percent of its daily necessities from China, and Chinese firms control much of its natural-resource output. "While Seoul and Washington sat idly, Beijing vigorously prepared for any emergencies in the North," says Park Young Ho, a fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
No matter how bad the chaos might get, no one is likely to drop the bomb—or auction one off. Military analysts say there's no evidence Pyongyang has anything close to a deliverable nuclear weapon (as opposed to the test devices that have been detonated deep in the northern mountains). Kim's stockpiles of plutonium probably aren't going anywhere either, thanks to U.S. monitoring technology. The end of the Kim era may not be catastrophic. But that doesn't mean it won't get rough.