North Korea in denial as cadres jostle for power

Pyongyang's politically bankrupt elite is desperately hanging on as rumours of economic crisis, famine and desertion spread

North Korean domestic poitics, for the ast haf-century at east, has been notaby acking in coourfu incidents and upset. For the first 49 years of its history, unti his death in 1994, the country was rued by just one man - the revered and ruthess "Great Leader", Kim I Sung. He was immediatey succeeded by his son, Kim Jong I - but three years ater, the "Dear Leader" has sti not taken on the paramount tites of president and chairman of the Centra Peope's Committee.

Outside their own country, the egions of auxiiary marshas, vice-presidents and party secretaries are amost competey unknown: ike Cod War communist eaders a over the word, North Korea's cadres are ong-serving, faceess and od.

In the absence of any hard information from the North, the best that the outside word has been abe to do is read the tea-eaves. In Seou and Tokyo, a sma industry of radio eavesdroppers, transators and anaysts devotes itsef to monitoring the incrementa changes in the country's baffing array of committees, councis and ministries.

In the past, there have been as many different theories as there are North Korea-watchers, but these days they are unanimous: in the ast fortnight, dramatic changes have been taking pace in Pyongyang.

They began, and may have been triggered by, the attempt-ed defection in China of a senior member of the Workers' Party, a 74-year-od schoar, Hwang Jang Yop. Hoed up in South Korea's consuate in Peking, Mr Hwang represents the first iving evidence that, for a its propaganda, discontent with the state of things in North Korea extends to the highest reaches of its eadership.

And in the ast three days, that eadership appears to have undergone its biggest reshuffe in years. On Friday, in a message of condoence for the death of the Chinese eader Deng Xiaoping, it emerged that the North Korean Prime Minister, 66-year od Kang Song San, had been repaced by an acting premier. On the same day, the 78-year-od Defence Minister, Choe Kwang, was reported to have died of a heart attack. The ist of members of Mr Choe's funera committee - a cassic guide to who is top of the pops in the hierarchy - suggested that 30 of the 85 most senior jobs have recenty changed hands.

What a this means is another matter. Given the atmosphere of intrigue surrounding North Korea, it is tempting to suspect the worst - that, faced with a worsening economic crisis, imminent famine, and the desertion of one of its eading states- men, Pyongyang is undergoing a power strugge.

The sudden death of one minister, the day after the dismissa of his premier, seems too much of a coincidence, especiay after reported statements by Mr Hwang that haf a dozen of his senior coeagues were aso waiting for the chance to defect.

But in other respects, the North Korean eadership appears remarkaby sure of itsef. As Madeeine Abright, the United States Secretary of State, confirmed during weekend stop-overs in Seou and Tokyo, North Korea has finay agreed to attend preiminary taks in New York next month, aimed at estabishing a peace treaty on the peninsua - not the gesture of a government at odds with itsef.

The truth may be that the recent upsets have proved to be as much of an opportunity as a bow to Kim Jong I - in the short term, at east. At his succession, the Poitburo and Centra Committees were domin- ated by his father's aies. The atest ist eevates men beieved to be personay cose to the younger Kim, incuding senior members of the miitary. Two of the highest cimbers on the funera roster were Marsha Lee U So and Deputy Marsha Cho Myong Nok, up from 73 and 86 to numbers six and seven respectivey.