German diplomats said last week that leaflets had been distributed in the diplomatic quarter of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, with slogans against Kim Jong Il - son of and nominated successor to the late dictator, Kim Il Sung. Since nobody could produce one of the leaflets, and given that the incident appeared to be a one-off, this seemed to be slim pickings. What, after all, does one leaflet say about the future of a nation of 22 million?
The answer may be: a surprising amount. Even before the death of Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, Western observers believed that there were tensions between the army and the ruling Communist Party, on one hand, and Kim Jong Il, the 52-year-old Dear Leader, on the other. The distribution of the leaflet appears to confirm those tensions have grown.
Only a small number of North Koreans have access to the foreigners' diplomatic quarter. Thus, Western diplomats assume those distributing the leaflets were themselves part of the elite. There had already been murmurs of suspicion about the failure officially to announce Kim Jong Il as successor after his father's death on 8 July. But the head of South Korean national security planning was confident last week that Kim would be officially appointed after the mourning period ends, on 16 October.
Even if Kim Jong Il becomes head of state without further hitches, the mere fact that some are opposed to him is seen as significant. A North Korean radio commentary appeared to take Kim Jong Il's side in the argument: 'Historical experience shows that if the succession issue involving takeover of great revolutionary works of the leader fails to be resolved correctly, it could result in damaging the party and revolution through acts of betrayal by ambitious people and conspirators.'
On any conventional scale of values, Kim would be seen as a Communist hardliner. Paradoxically, however, he may appear to North Korean party officials and the army as a dangerous 'reformer'. Observers point, for example, to the suggestion that an American mission might be opened in Pyongyang - one of the subjects discussed at recent nuclear talks with the North Koreans. Such an idea would be anathema to hardliners.
Markus Tidten, a German specialist in Korean affairs, says that such a diplomatic mission would mark 'the first step to an opening-up'. Thus, many in the army and the Communist Party are worried about what it might pave the way for. 'They are frightened of any change, because they know that the smallest change would lead to much more. If the smallest crack opens, the dam will break. That's what they're afraid of.'
There are parallels elsewhere in the former Communist world to suggest that the hardliners are right to be worried. In Stalinist Albania, the then Communist Party leader, Ramiz Alia - nominated successor of the dictator Enver Hoxha - introduced limited reforms in 1990, while retaining Stalinist structures.
But those small reforms encouraged people to lose their fear, and to sense the possibilities of much greater change. Once rebellion had begun, it snowballed. Many analysts had argued that Albania was too repressive and too isolated to be affected by the revolutions that swept the rest of Eastern Europe in 1989. But student demonstrations in December 1990 quickly led to the collapse of Albanian Stalinism, too. Within just four months free elections were held.
North Korea has not yet fallen over the precipice. But the words of an East European diplomat I met in the Albanian capital, Tirana, in autumn 1990 could be equally appropriate in Pyongyang today. 'Some of us expected an explosion when the students returned for the new academic year. But all was quiet. Somehow, though, things must surely change.'
Certainly, some observers of Korean politics believe the Communists are now in a no- win situation. Either they reform of their own accord, or they are forced to do so. Either way, reforms lead to more reforms. Mr Titden argues: 'We reckon the collapse will come soon. Economically, the country is finished. Even if they don't reform, I wouldn't give them more than one or two years.'
In the authorities' favour in North Korea is the fact that - to an even greater extent than in Albania - there is an information blockade. People can thus be persuaded to believe they are surrounded by dangerous enemies, and that their own country is better off than anywhere else in the world.
But there is an important factor working against the authorities, too: the popular will to unite the two Koreas. This, observers believe, could accelerate the process of internal change. If North Korea began to see an exodus, it seems unlikely the regime could long survive.Reuse content