But mounting evidence suggests strongly that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is reaching a crisis point, and that this summer will be a decisive moment both for the country's murky domestic politics and its troubled relations with the outside world.
The crisis has its roots in that fundamental of East Asian culture: rice. In common with its neighbours China and Japan the Korean peninsula has suffered a series of poor harvests. North Koreans need an estimated 6.7 million tons of rice annually; for the past four years the paddies, squeezed into the valleys and lowlands of the mainly mountainous country, have yielded only about 4 million tons.
Until recently, the shortfall was made up by bartering manufactured goods for grain from China and Russia. Now both countries have serious shortages of their own, and have begun to demand cash instead. China's shortages are particularly worrying for the region: a vast population, unable to feed itself as a result of agricultural changes brought about by the market economy, and land degradation through chemicals and over-irrigation, would create immense political pressures.
Agriculture is not the only part of the economy under pressure. "Made in North Korea" has never been much of a designer label, and since the liberalisation of its former communist partners, products from the North's collective factories have had to compete with those from free-market economies. "Because of the rapid destruction of the world socialist market," the deputy Prime Minister, Kim Dal Hyon admitted as early as 1992, "we can't export our goods to socialist countries and import [oil] in exchange."
Even official visitors, carefully insulated from the realities of life outside the gleaming model capital, Pyongyang, have noticed the hardship. A senior diplomat described the bleak view of shrivelled fields and run- down villages glimpsed from a train. Fuel shortages have undermined efforts in agricultural mechanisation: in many areas, ploughs are drawn by oxen, and there are few other animals in the fields. The only visible sources of protein are rows of runner beans that line the doorways of rural homesteads. (In some Pyongyang hotels, rice portions have been padded out with corn.) In the early 1990s, a new propaganda slogan was added to the patriotic mottos glorifying the late dictator Kim Il Sung, and his son Kim Jong Il. "Let's eat two meals a day," it exhorted, "instead of three!"
For 49 years, until the death last year of Kim Il Sung, their founding "Great Leader", North Koreans were inculcated with the national doctrine of juche - self- reliance. But juche's economic and political foundations have been decisively undermined. Such a state of affairs would give the shivers to leaders in most countries - let alone a paranoid communist dictatorship surrounded by powerful neighbours. Two years ago, defectors to Seoul reported rumours of food riots, and Korea watchers held their breath for news of further turmoil or insurgency. But, as far as one can tell, the country has been at peace. Indeed there appears to be a chance that, far from undermining North Korea, the food shortages may force the country closer to its neighbours and indirectly bring about more stability.
Open revolution is considered unlikely in North Korea for several reasons. Unlike the former communist states of Eastern Europe, for instance, where Western television broadcasts and luxury goods had for years shown up the inadequacies of the socialist system, the country is truly isolated. For 50 years the personality cult surrounding the Kim family has gone unchallenged: when crowds of North Koreans were pictured weeping uncontrollably at the Great Leader's funeral last year, they appeared to be quite genuine.
In any case, according to foreign observers, the country is simply too poor to topple its leadership. "Obviously they are in a desperate situation," says Yang Sung Chul of South Korea's Kyung Hee University. "But usually food riots come only when rising expectations are disappointed by a sudden drop in supplies. North Koreans have crossed the starvation threshold: they simply don't have the power or energy to protest.'' And the recent signs are that North Korea's shadowy leaders, recognising their impossible position, have begun to adjust their stance. Internationally, juche has expressed itself in a bellicose rhetoric of opposition to the imperialist United States and its treacherous puppets in Seoul. Every spring, until they were discontinued last year, joint military exercises between the US and South Korea were greeted with noisy sabre-rattling from Pyongyang. Nobody can forget the threat last year to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire", made all the more menacing by the suspicion that North Korean reactors have produced enough plutonium to make a nuclear weapon.
For almost a year, Pyongyang has played an unpredictable diplomatic game, first freezing its nuclear programme under the threat of sanctions, then threatening to restart, when the US insisted that it replace its graphite reactors with safer, light-water models from South Korea. But last week, against all expectations, the stance suddenly softened again. Diplomats from the North began to speak of "progress"; yesterday, the US deputy Secretary of State, Thomas Hubbard, and the North Korean spokesman, Lee Yong Ho, spoke of "tentative understandings" after the latest round of talks in Kuala Lumpur.
The key to the compromise is, once again, rice - and a complicated web of diplomatic relationships enmeshing the North and its neighbours. The first hint of Pyongyang's new attitude appeared last month, when a Korean delegation in Tokyo took the unprecedented step of asking Japan - the object, over the years, of almost as much bellicose rhetoric as the South - for food aid in return for revived diplomatic contacts.
The sticking-point was the South Korean government, which harbours a dread of being left out of any international scheme involving its estranged brother state. Seoul stepped in with its own rice offer, which was haughtily refused. But yesterday South Korean media reported secret contacts on rice donations had been held recently in Peking. South Korea has made it clear to Tokyo that Seoul, and only Seoul, must be the first to provide aid to the starving North.
Two key dates now loom on the horizon. The first is 27 June, when local elections will be held all over South Korea. Until then President Kim Young Sam cannot afford to make any concessions. The second, and by far the most important date, is 8 July, the first anniversary of the death of Kim Il Sung.
For 11 months, his son and chosen successor, Kim Jong Il, has made few personal appearances, prompting speculation about a behind-the-scenes power struggle. Kim, as far as anyone can tell, is still waiting in the wings, however. It is widely believed that this summer will see his investiture, after the traditional one-year period of mourning. But what will be the character of his regime is open to question. If nothing else, he will want to start off with two problems settled: one, the reactor question; two, the rice that will feed his starving people.
Seen against this background, the brinkmanship and about- turns of the past few weeks begin to form a coherent picture. North Korea desperately needs Japanese rice. To acquire it, it must first win South Korean approval. To secure that, it must settle the reactor question by grudgingly agreeing to take the South Korean hardware. It must do all this before the symbolic 8 July, and before its dire domestic situation exhausts the patience of its long-suffering populace.
What happens after that? With the doctrine of juche discredited, North Korea badly needs a new idea. The inauguration of the new Kim will be the ideal moment to unveil one. But what will it be? How can the North tailor its antique Stalinist rhetoric to the demands of the post- communist world?
As early as 1992, Pyongyang was toying with the idea of a special economic zone along its Chinese and Russian border - something akin to the economic reform that has invigorated China under Deng Xiaoping. But the strains of such an adjustment will be huge, and the question remains: if North Korea adopts its equivalent of the Chinese free market, will it also have to face its own Tiananmen Square?Reuse content