Since disastrous floods last summer which washed away homes and severely damaged an already feeble rice harvest, foreign governments have been speculating that food shortages could trigger a sudden collapse in the secretive Stalinist state.
Japan's foreign ministry is investigating claims that thousands of refugees, who have fled into China throughout the bitter North Korean winter, are being forcibly repatriated. American intelligence has reported mass public executions of criminals, and North Korean defectors to Seoul regularly bring back lurid accounts of concentration camps, suggesting that the Pyongyang regime is increasingly resorting to repressive measures to contain unrest caused by food shortages.
After an unprecedented appeal last autumn for food supplies, North Korea is showing signs of becoming uncomfortable with the presence of international aid agencies, which has caused more information about the country's potential instability to leak out. Earlier this month, the military stepped in to veto a further appeal for assistance through UN bodies.
Pyongyang's million-strong armed forces, concentrated near the demilitarised zone which divides the two Koreas, are the principal focus of regional anxiety. "The extent of their difficulties is hard to read, but there have been suggestions that their military strength cannot be kept at present levels and that it may be eaten into," said a foreign ministry official. "South Korea is very concerned that the North may act out of desperation."
So unfathomable is the Pyongyang regime, however, that it has caused disagreement about its intentions not only between neighbouring countries, but among Tokyo's different agencies. A conflict on the Korean peninsula would put Tokyo in a desperate dilemma, torn between its concerns for regional security and the demands of its pacifist constitution which rules out the dispatch of Japanese combat troops overseas.
"We believe that North Korea is about to collapse, and that a crisis is imminent," a defence ministry official told the Independent. "If war broke out between the South and North, the allies would win, but South Korea and the US would suffer considerable losses, and Japan would also be affected."
Overt military co-operation between Tokyo and Seoul is problematic because of lingering historical resentment about Japan's 35-year colonisation of the peninsula. In recent weeks however, senior defence officials from both countries have met regularly to co-ordinate their response to a North Korean upheaval. "South Korea believes it will be later than the Americans and Japan assume," the defence official said. "But we've agreed we should be prepared for possible invasion, guerrilla fighting, limited invasion or a full-scale Korean war." These talks, however, as well as recent consultations among diplomats from Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, have disclosed clear differences over both the timing of North Korea's anticipated collapse and over how to prevent it.
The South fears that the rice aid provided so far has succoured the military, while Japan and the US hope that by offering a certain amount of humanitarian assistance, they will allow Pyongyang to achieve a "soft landing". This is the dilemma the region faces: whether to lure Pyongyang from isolation with rice, or to starve it into submission.
n Seoul (Reuters) - The first wife of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong- il, wants asylum in the West instead of South Korea where she fears for her safety, according to a Seoul intelligence source.
Sung Hye-rim, who was reported to have fled her Moscow home, is seeking refuge in the United States or Europe, the source said. "Sung is known to fear Northern retaliation and this is believed to be the reason she does not want to come to Seoul at the moment."Reuse content