In situations as dire as that of North Korea, any change is a harbinger of hope. As much is true of the death of the reclusive nation's leader, Kim Jong Il, and the ascension of his youngest son, 20-something Kim Jong Un. Even though this has triggered immediate fears of instability throughout northeast Asia, the longer-term outlook is surely one of enhanced optimism, for the Korean people and the rest of the world.

Any examination of Kim Jong Il's 17 years in power, not least his pursuit of nuclear weapons, confirms as much. Fears of a turbulent transition rest on the view that Kim Jong Un may feel he must project himself as a strong man, especially to North Korea's powerful generals.

Precipitating a crisis, most likely with South Korea, would be an obvious way of achieving this. But the possibility of such posturing aside, there is reason to believe the new leader will provide a better opportunity to persuade North Korea to relinquish its nuclear aspirations.

Kim Jong Un's succession is a generational change, with all the switches in orientation that entails. He has also studied in Switzerland, speaks several foreign languages, including English, and is said to have a deep interest in computer and cellphone technology.


That may not necessarily make him open to reform, but he certainly represents a sharp change from his father. The unbending nature of Kim Jong Il's rule resulted in his country standing still economically, leading to famines in which up to three million people, or close to an eighth of the population, are thought to have died.

While people starved, the army was fed and no expense was spared on nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programmes. These became North Korea's trump card for dealings with the West, which Kim Jong Il frustrated repeatedly in a series of disarmament talks. When President George W. Bush listed North Korea in his "axis of evil", Kim responded by withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and staging two nuclear tests.

Paradoxically, relations appeared to be improving when Kim Jong Il died. After months of behind-the-scenes diplomatic contacts, the United States was about to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea. In response, Pyongyang was to suspend its uranium enrichment programme. These moves were to be a prelude to the resumption of six-nation nuclear disarmament talks, also including China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, which foundered three years ago.

This would have been a considerable coup for President Barack Obama. He has emphasised the threat of nuclear weaponry, not least in its supply to terrorist groups, and the need for North Korea to be part of an improved regulatory framework.

Such initiatives will, unfortunately, have to be delayed during the leadership transition. But Pyongyang must be encouraged to return to the negotiating table as soon as possible.

Kim Jong Il also belatedly showed signs of following the lead of his only ally, China, by liberalising the North Korean economy. The first market reforms were faltering. But the lessons implicit in China's growth, and also the prosperity of South Korea, could not escape even Kim Jong Il. They must surely also have made an impression on his youngest son, and the North Korean people cannot be totally impervious to them.

The international community is right to have concerns about a young, untested man being thrust into the leadership of a country that possesses nuclear warheads. He may yet turn out to be a mirror image of his father. Either way, this will be a new era for North Korea in which things can hardly get worse.