How near to collapse is the regime of Kim Jong-Il in North Korea? In the latest NYRB, Nicholas Kristof thinks, not at all:
One of the central unknowns is how fragile Kim Jong Il's rule is today. The conservative assumption is that it's quite shaky, and that with a little nudge the US could topple it. Unfortunately, commentators have been making two contradictory kinds of comments about North Korea since the 1970s. First, they've said now it's finally changing and opening up; and then they've said it's finally about to collapse. Notwithstanding all the information collected from defectors, diplomats, and spies, the place and its people remain mysterious and unpredictable.
Lately there's been more speculation that North Korea's regime is about to topple, partly because of reports of unrest and partly because Kim Jong Il has apparently sent out instructions that his pictures should be removed from government offices and schools. Maybe North Korea is on its last legs, but I doubt it. I'm afraid that the US will be wrestling with Kim Jong Il and his nuclear arsenal for many years to come. Or even with his son, Kim Jong Nam, and his even bigger arsenal.
Kristof believes this largely because he wants to believe it. He thinks the survival of the Kim dynasty would prove hugely embarrassing to Bush, who, he believes, has badly mishandled dealings with North Korea. No suggestions as to what a better approach might involve, but it's obvious Bush has mishandled things because....well, because he's Bush.
He invaded Iraq because it might some day develop nuclear weapons, even as North Korea was openly and vociferously going all out to expand a known arsenal of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. So the administration has tended to avoid talking about North Korea.
In contrast, this article in the Sunday Times paints a convincing picture of a regime on its last legs:
Far across the frozen river two figures hurried from the North Korean shore, slip-sliding on the ice as they made a break for the Chinese riverbank to escape a regime that, by many accounts, is now entering its death throes. It was a desperate risk to run in the stark glare of the winter sunshine. We had just seen a patrol of Chinese soldiers in fur-lined uniforms tramping along the snowy bank, their automatic rifles slung ready for action.
Police cars swept up and down the road every 10 or 15 minutes, on the look-out for refugees. A small group of Chinese travellers in our minibus, some of whom turned out to have good reasons to be discreet, pretended not to notice.
The two made it to shelter and we ploughed on towards a border post that offered us a rare opportunity to cross into the northeastern corner of the last Stalinist state, posing as would-be investors in an experimental free trade zone.
We had already witnessed one sign that North Korea’s totalitarian system is dissolving, even as its leaders boast of owning nuclear weapons to deter their enemies.
“It’s just like the Berlin Wall,” Pastor Douglas Shin, a Christian activist, said by telephone from Seoul. “The slow-motion exodus is the beginning of the end.”
In interviews for this article over many months, western policymakers, Chinese experts, North Korean exiles and human rights activists built up a picture of a tightly knit clan leadership in Pyongyang that is on the verge of collapse.
Some of those interviewed believe the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il, has already lost his personal authority to a clique of generals and party cadres. Without any public announcement, governments from Tokyo to Washington are preparing for a change of regime.
The death of Kim’s favourite mistress last summer, a security clampdown on foreign aid workers and a reported assassination attempt in Austria last November against the leader’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, have all heightened the sense of disintegration.
If the regime were to collapse, it might suggest - horrors! - that the Bush approach was not so foolish after all.