End-game approaching for the 'Hermit Kingdom'

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VULTURES have started to circle over the North Korean government in Pyongyang. As with Fidel Castro in Cuba, no one can tell how much longer the isolated Communist regime, built up by Kim Il Sung over five decades, will remain standing. But with the country's economy in ruins, an end-game is approaching.

Diplomats are sceptical that leaflets found scattered in Pyongyang's diplomatic compound two weeks ago calling for the overthrow of the government were, in fact, the work of a dissident group. And, unlike the relatively peaceful fall of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, it is far from clear that the hardline Communist cadres in North Korea will give up their absolute power without a - potentially bloody - fight.

But as South Korea's President, Kim Young Sam, said this month, 'The Korean people cannot live divided for ever . . . the competition between the South and the North over which can create a better society is over.' And last week, as his government started to wake up to the possibility of North Korea collapsing sooner rather than later, President Kim warned his people 'to be well prepared to cope with any eventuality'.

The future of North Korea's secretive leadership has been uncertain since the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, died on 8 July. Despite extensive state propaganda over the past decade promoting his son, Kim Jong Il, as natural successor to his father, no official announcement has been made appointing Kim Jong Il to a top post. Some have speculated that the leadership is split between those urging economic reform and an opening to the outside world, and hard liners who see any opening as the beginning of the end, just as happened in Eastern Europe.

Since the funeral of his father, Kim Jong Il has not appeared in public. Ten days ago the official radio said the 'revolution could be destroyed (if) the problem of a successor' were not solved successfully - immediately suggesting that a power struggle was going on. But there are no signs of unrest in the streets of Pyongyang, and North Korea-watchers admit that the inner workings of the country's leadership are almost entirely unknown.

The origin of the seditious leaflets, saying 'Down with Kim Jong Il', is still a mystery. The dip lomatic compound is off-limits to ordinary North Koreans. One alternative theory suggests the leaflets may have been planted by South Korean agents in an attempt to stir up trouble as the North Korean regime struggles with the succession of Kim Il Sung.

Another theory is that the leaflets were the work of the 'dirty- tricks brigade' of North Korean intelligence, seeking to increase the uncertainty over who is in control in Pyongyang in order to keep stalling any definitive nuclear agreement with the US. North Korea and the US reached partial agreement in Geneva two weeks ago on a formula for ending the nuclear showdown between the two countries, but many issues still remain open. As the two sides adjourned the talks, which will resume on 23 September, US officials said their North Korean counterparts did not have 'approval' from 'their capital' to make a concrete deal.

But with no confirmation that the leaflets were distributed anywhere else in the capital, all sides agree that a genuine dissident movement is unlikely to begin its campaign for national revolt in foreign nations' embassies. Whoever the perpetrator, the motive seemed to be to ensure news of the leaflets reached the outside world. Little else of substance has emerged from the 'Hermit Kingdom', which is why the vultures can only circle patiently, watching from a distance.