According to North Korean state television, the heart attack that killed Kim Jong Il on Dec. 17 was "due to severe mental and physical stress from overwork."

That report instantly raised a question in my mind: If we accept the regime's diagnosis, why did Kim need to work so hard, despite his frail health? In some sense, his sudden death seems to symbolize the helplessness of a desperate leader confronting overwhelming challenges.

Seen in this light, the more important question is whether Kim's inexperienced son, the twentysomething "Great Successor" Kim Jong Un, will be able to consolidate power and somehow steer the country out of its deep malaise.