When long-time North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung died in 1994, nervous South Koreans rushed to the stores and hoarded basic necessities such as rice, canned meat and instant noodles in fear of another Korean War. The "Great Leader" was dead and his son, Kim Jong Il was taking over. This was uncharted territory.
But when the news of Kim Jong Il's death hit this week, Seoulites — even the greenest of expats, who might have started looking up prices for a flight home — barely flinched.
In South Korea, with the Cold War long over, the realization seems to have sunk in that while Seoul and Pyongyang remain mortal enemies, a repeat of the 1950-1953 Korean War is not in the cards, even if a new regime under Kim Jong Il's 28-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, decided to prove its mettle by provoking the South. As we saw with North Korea's bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, which killed four South Koreans, Seoul brought things back to normal with a little brinksmanship and few rounds of artillery that killed five on the North Korean side.
Stability is in the interest of all parties involved — China, Russia, the United States, Japan and, most palpably, Koreans on both sides of the DMZ.
As North Korea watchers have pointed out, there is a risk that the Kim Jong Un regime could exploit a wary sense of optimism among its neighbors and backtrack on deals that might have gone through in the coming months. In other words, the status quo.
Some have warned of Kim Jong Un's lack of a political base paving the way for a military coup or a destabilizing popular revolt á la the Arab Spring. But in my view, all signs point to an unrelenting propaganda campaign by the regime to establish continuity, even if that means Jong Un remains in place for appearances while a clique of elders or the military pull the levers behind the scenes.
In any case, if the disaster that was the reign of Kim Jong Il, with its famines and nuclear games, wasn't enough to bring out the peasants and their pitchforks, I would be surprised if another dynastic hand-over would do the trick.