An array of intelligence analysts, Asian and American scholars,
specialists in think tanks, and workers in relief organizations have
renewed speculation that the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-il is in danger of collapsing because that nation is on the brink of mass starvation and mounting isolation.
No one will even guess when this might happen - within a year, more
likely within five years, and almost surely within 10 years? Will the
collapse be a "soft landing" in which Mr. Kim's regime gradually falls
apart with the pieces picked up by the South Koreans, or will it be a
"hard landing" in which Mr. Kim's regime implodes and chaos sweeps the
The consequences of a regime change in Pyongyang could be
staggering. Immediately, U.S., South Korean and Chinese troops could
charge into North Korea to secure its nuclear facilities - and confront each other. Midterm, reviving North Korea could cost South Korea, Japan, China and the United States enormous sums. Long term, a reunited Korea would change the power balance of East Asia - but unpredictably.
Analysts everywhere point to a decade of hunger that has left
7-year-old North Korean children 8 inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter
than their South Korean cousins. North Korean soldiers in a regime that
gives priority to the military forces have been reduced to two skimpy
meals a day. Factory workers nap on the floor for lack of food and
That has led to conjecture that North Koreans, despite the pervasive
controls in the Hermit Kingdom's police state, may throw caution to the
winds. "We just don't think they can go along with this much longer,"
said an American official with access to intelligence assessments.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington
reports that North Korea, after 10 years of food shortages, stands on
the precipice of famine that could have political consequences. "The
possibility of widespread social distress and even political
instability," the institute said in a study, "cannot be ruled out."
Another study, from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service,
says: "Dismal economic conditions also foster forces of discontent that
potentially could turn against the Kim regime - especially if knowledge
of the luxurious lifestyle of Communist Party leaders becomes better
known or as poor economic performance hurts even the elite."
Even so, an assessment from Jane's, publisher of security reports,
said five years ago: "The only significant power base that might
challenge the regime is the military. Since Kim Jong-il became chairman
of the National Defense Commission, however, he has promoted 230
generals. Most of the army's 1,200-strong general officer corps owes
their allegiance to him." Nothing appears to have changed that judgment
- except starvation.
Added to the pressures on the regime is the increasing isolation of
Pyongyang. The six-party talks among North Korea, South Korea, China,
Japan, Russia and the United States, which are intended to persuade Mr.
Kim to give up his nuclear ambitions, are stalled with no end in sight.
China and Russia no longer seem to have an ideological commitment to
their fellow communists in North Korea and were clearly miffed when
North Korea detonated a nuclear device in 2006. Japan has begun to
negotiate warily with North Korea to get an accounting of the Japanese
it kidnapped over a long period. Most sanctions remain in place.
Seoul's contacts with North Korea slowed after, among other things,
a North Korean soldier killed a South Korean woman taking an early
morning walk on a beach near the North Korean resort she was visiting.
Moreover, South Korean young people have shown less interest in
reconciliation with North Korea than their parents and grandparents
because of the cost.
For the United States, officials of the Bush administration are
going through the motions of negotiating with the North Koreans for an
enforceable agreement under which Kim Jong-il would give up his nuclear
weapons. In return, he would get a peace agreement replacing the truce
that ended the Korean War of 1950-53, diplomatic relations with the
United States, and aid and trade benefits. But little real progress is
The opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games, a political event
if ever there was one, reflected power relations in East Asia.
President Hu Jintao of China was the host, of course. U.S. President
George Bush, the 43rd U.S. president, was there along with his father,
President George H.W. Bush, the 41st. Premier Vladimir Putin
represented Russia, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda represented Japan, and
President Lee Myung Bak represented South Korea.
Kim Jong-il wasn't there.