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Communist reform: Could it happen in North Korea?

Amid reports of a major political gathering in North Korea, communist history suggests post-Kim moderation is possible.

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When a Communist dictator dies, moderation follows. It's a virtual axiom of political science, supported by much of 20th-century history. But could reform follow the rule of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il? The answer will shape both the nuclear ambitions of a rogue state and the outcome of one of Asia's longest-running conflicts, on the Korean Peninsula.

Soviet and Chinese Communist history is instructive. After Joseph Stalin's death in March 1953, new Soviet Premier Georgi Malenkov spoke and acted in decidedly non-Stalinist ways.

For example, he worried about the Soviet Union's intensifying arms race with the United States, warning that nuclear war would bring "the end of world civilization." And he recommended that Germany be reunified on essentially Western terms. He also issued liberal ukases on the home front. Under Malenkov, Stalin's ruthless secret police chief Lavrenti Beria amnestied thousands of political prisoners from the Gulag in 1953.

The Malenkov syndrome

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