SEOUL — The long-delayed meeting of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party came at a time of severe tension between North Korea and the international community. As widely expected, Kim Jong Il's third son, Kim Jong Un, was appointed to a high position to justify his becoming his father's successor. A reshuffling of important positions within the party also took place, allowing the presumed heir to form a new power base.

Whatever happens, and whoever turns out to be the new leader, North Korea most likely faces an unstable future. The cost of maintaining internal order will continue to rise as the system's fundamental defects force the new leader to confront stark new challenges. Moreover, responsibility for managing that potential instability extends far beyond the leadership in Pyongyang.

North Korea's fragility is suggested by the fact that even such an important political event as the Workers' Party conference, held for the first time in three decades, was abruptly postponed earlier in September. One cause for the delay could be a schism within the ruling elite, a group that "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il himself cannot control as effectively as before. Moreover, Kim's health problems might have worsened much faster than outsiders guess, further complicating matters.