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North Korea at the crossroads after death of Kim Jong-il

Kim Jong-il was as revered at home as he was vilified abroad.

The death of the North Korean leader, known to his people as the Great Leader, offers both a threat and an opportunity. It could mark the reassertion of absolute control or the opening of politics and the markets. The carefully worded statements emanating yesterday from world leaders echo a nervous recognition that the country once identified by George Bush as part of the "axis of evil" is at a turning point.

Though the dictator's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, has been named as the chosen successor, he is unknown and untested. While his father had two decades to prepare for power, Kim Jong-un was chosen less than two years ago. As he seeks to consolidate his control over the impoverished country with its limping Soviet-style command economy, there are fears that internal problems could spill into bordering countries. North Korea has a habit of using sabre-rattling to detract attention from domestic instability. Relations with South Korea are already clouded by the sinking last year of one of its ships and the shelling of a disputed island on the border, costing 50 lives.

Nevertheless, the situation also offers an opportunity. North Korea badly needs aid as it struggles to feed its 24 million people. The key concern today is the securing of the country's nuclear arsenal. As the government seems prepared to make political concessions in return for economic incentives, a deal looks possible. However, this unreformed hard-line communist state appears unwilling to sacrifice its main bargaining chip.

Meanwhile the South Koreans are ambivalent about the prospect of millions of their impoverished and poorly educated cousins pouring across the border in the event of re-unification. There are parallels with West and East Germany but with an even wider cultural gulf. Defectors require extensive re-education to prepare them for life in the 21st century. Any Arab-style spontaneous uprising is most unlikely from a people fed an exclusive diet of hagiography and propaganda. Though vilified abroad, Mr Kim enjoyed the status of a demi-god within his country.

No death should be celebrated but it is the continuing suffering of the people of North Korea that should concern us. There are numerous reports of human rights abuses, though the government continues to deny access to human rights monitors. In the mid-1990s, shortly after he succeeded his father, the country's founder, botched economic reforms resulted in a famine that is thought to have cost two million lives.

Though recent exploratory talks with the US have yielded little progress, the offer of sorely needed food aid could act as a sweetener for opening up North Korea's nuclear facilities to outside inspection. The talks must go on, despite what is likely to be a lengthy period of official mourning.

A younger leader with an eye to the future may offer opportunities for engagement. Conversely, a weak leader who fails to consolidate his position may be the precursor of internal collapse and a chance for a new future free of communist rule. Either option is preferable to the bleak status quo.

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