The premature death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il leaves behind a Shakespearean cast of characters who may not play the roles the late dictator had assigned to them.
Kim may have had a stroke in 2008, but his health more recently seemed stable. Observers felt his third son, Kim Jong Un, designated 15 months ago as the heir-apparent, would likely have several years to grow into the role.
Instead, the elder Kim's death at age 69, reportedly from a heart attack, now means the rest of the world, in particular a necessarily nervous South Korea, must pay close attention to avoid being caught off guard by an unanticipated shift in the story line.
Official statements suggested an orderly process had already installed Kim Jong Un as the "great successor." But whatever power he ultimately wields will be decided by others, most notably military leaders working in concert with his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, both of whom had been given additional powers by the late Kim.
Any certitude that accompanied Kim Jong Il's rise after his father, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994 is absent today. Kim Jong Il had been an active leader in the regime for more than a decade when his father died. Conversely, until 15 months ago Kim Jong Un was involved in very little, except maintaining a carefree lifestyle. Until recently, most North Koreans had not seen even even a photograph of their next leader.
Maybe not knowing the third act in their drama is why so many North Koreans, like kidnap victims suffering from Stockholm syndrome, cried at the news of Kim Jong Il's death. They seemed unable to understand the depths to which he had taken them on a mad quest to manufacture a nuclear arsenal by starving the very people those weapons were supposed to protect.
Unfortunately, there is little reason to expect that North Koreans will be treated any better by an inexperienced new leader who will likely do whatever he's told. Kim Jong Un's expected handlers benefited as much from his father's sense of entitlement as did the man who thought nothing of living large while his people starved.
Neither can the world outside North Korea expect that nuclear outlaw to suddenly become a better neighbor. This leadership change is fraught with danger, but little can be done outside that country to assure the outcome of its transition. Most important in any international outreach will be the role of China, North Korea's longtime benefactor. The most others can do is watch.