What happens in Pyongyang doesn't stay in Pyongyang. Even though North Korea is probably the world's most hermetic country, its actions reverberate beyond its borders. For years, many governments have tried carrot-and-stick policies to curb Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, persuade it to treat its people better and force it to behave like a responsible member of the global community. Here's a six-nation state of play in the post--Kim Jong Il era, in which his son Kim Jong Un has been named his successor.
With a new, untested leader in his late 20s taking charge (at least ostensibly) of an isolated, paranoid, nuclear-armed country, all eyes will be on North Korea's generals. The late Dear Leader Kim Jong Il gave the country's military pretty much everything it wanted, and the brass in turn no doubt approved Kim Jong Un as the designated successor. On the surface he is Supreme Leader, and on paper he is a four-star general, but Kim Jong Un has no military experience whatsoever, and the generals won't take orders from him. It's likely to be the other way around. Generals anywhere aren't liberal by nature, so expect North Korea's hard-line policies to continue--for now.
Beijing is supposedly "as close as lips and teeth" with Pyongyang, but does China really have significant influence over North Korea? The world ought to be pressing the Chinese leadership for the answer to that question. If ever China needed to play the role of grownup in its relations with North Korea, the time is now. What would that mean? Telling Kim Jong Un and the decisionmakers behind him that the only way forward is economic reform on the Chinese model--and that failure to pursue that path aggressively would result in a cutoff of trade and energy assistance. The Chinese government's tolerance of the North Korean regime is an embarrassment for a rising power that aspires to a greater role on the world stage.
When Kim Jong Il died, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who is in his last year in office, had already been mulling ways to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. They had spiked in the wake of the North's shelling of a South Korean island in November 2010. Surveys show that South Koreans support a renewed effort to improve relations with the North; in particular, they favor a resumption of the emotional reunions between families divided by the Korean War. Seoul has to figure out whether Pyongyang under Kim Jong Un and the generals is interested in rapprochement. The South's response to Kim Jong Il's death has been relatively conciliatory; it dispatched a delegation to attend ceremonies commemorating Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Un met the visiting South Koreans, but it's too early to tell whether the gesture was a one-off or a sign of a thaw.