Editor's note: Daniel Sargent is an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. A specialist in the history of international relations, he is completing a book titled "A Superpower Transformed," on U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s. It will be published with Oxford University Press. He is also the co-editor of "The Shock of the Global," a compendium of essays on global politics and economics in the 1970s.
(CNN) -- Headlines this week reminded us that leaders do matter in the making of history.
Václav Havel, who died Sunday, was the candle who lit the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia. He singularly -- if not single-handedly -- catalyzed the crisis of one of Eastern Europe's best-entrenched communist regimes. Championing human rights and intellectual freedom, Havel crafted a devastating takedown of totalitarianism.
It is ironic that Havel was joined in death by a man who personified the creed that he dismantled. Kim Jong Il, a dictator and the son of a dictator, disproved only Havel's view that totalitarian states are faceless; his face was the symbol of his atrocious regime. Otherwise, Kim confirmed everything that Havel knew about totalitarianism.
Think about the view of the Korean peninsula at night, as seen from space. While democratic South Korea is luminescent, the North is a vacuum of darkness. This is compelling testimony of the social, economic and moral travesty that Kim's regime was. His death should be celebrated -- unless it produces yet more misery, that is.
What now for North Korea and the world? What does Kim's death mean for East Asia and for the United States?
This is a region that matters. East Asia is the world's major economic hub and a focal point of the Obama administration's global strategy. The 38th Parallel that divides North and South Korea is, moreover, a major geopolitical fault line. On one side is North Korea, backed by China. On the other is South Korea, bound by alliance to the United States. Nowhere, save Taiwan, is regional conflict more likely to embroil the world's sole superpower and its Chinese challenger.
The question is this: Does Kim's death make regional and world politics more or less stable? The future is unknowable, but some perspective may help us to gauge the stakes, especially insofar as American interests are concerned.
We should beware appealing but misleading analogies. It would be premature to predict a "Pyongyang Spring." North Korea is a regime quite different from Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. A Stalinist relic of the Cold War, North Korea is authentically totalitarian -- not just authoritarian -- and far less vulnerable than was Egypt to the challenge of civil society.
The passing of a dictator who has ruled for three decades will be traumatic nonetheless. In the Soviet Union and China, after all, the deaths of Stalin in 1953 and Mao in 1976 opened the door to change. Stalin's heir, Nikita Khrushchev, initiated a thaw that sowed the seeds for real reform in the 1980s. After Mao came Deng Xiaoping, the pragmatist who steered China's re-engagement with the world economy. Yet in neither case was the transition smooth nor the consequences immediately obvious.
Uncertain in his own authority, Khrushchev invaded Hungary in 1956. Deng attacked Vietnam in 1979. Lashing out abroad can help solidify a regime at home. Whether Kim's son and anointed heir, Kim Jong Un, does this will be for him and his small coterie of advisers to decide. Still, South Korea and the United States should be prepared for a phase of uncertainty, even testing, across the 38th Parallel.
The more interesting question, though, is where the regime's new masters will go over the medium to long term. The fact is that North Korea has backed itself into an unfavorable corner. It is poor, benighted and dependent on China, its mighty patron. The change in leadership may yet provide an opportunity to plot a new course.
Here, the key issue will be how Kim Jong Un positions himself in relation to Beijing. China's rise has, after all, sent other East Asian countries scattering toward Washington. Vietnam, a communist country, is edging westward, while even Myanmar is beginning to rethink its relations with the West.
Gone are the days when communist vassals could enjoy a modicum of autonomy by playing Moscow and Beijing against each other. If the younger Kim wants to get North Korea out of the rut that his father ground, he will have to expand his options. That would necessarily entail some opening toward South Korea and the West. It may or may not happen, but the alternative of abject dependence on China must look less and less attractive.
What we should not expect is reform for its own sake. No one stands poised to play the role of Kim Dae-jung, the reformer and activist who was South Korea's Václav Havel. The faceless and fearful men who now lead North Korea have few options, but the choices will be theirs to make. They will choose according to their own self-interests, but we ought to shape the incentives in ways that serve ours. That means being realistic about the likelihood of indigenous political change but open-minded about the possibilities for engagement with a regime that has few real options available to it.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Sargent.