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.