The Dark Horses of 1994: NORTH KOREA / Kim's weak finger on a big trigger

NORTH KOREA, someone said in 1993, has been out on a ledge for so long that the country seems immune to any fear of heights. It is the onlookers who get vertigo. Will Kim Il Sung, who since 1948 has ruled one of the most isolated regimes anywhere, jump into the abyss? Does he have a nuclear weapon, as the Central Intelligence Agency considers probable? If so, will he bargain it away, or simply duck, weave and deny until the world loses patience? And if he felt cornered, would he push the button? No one knows.

Suspicions over North Korea's nuclear intentions are based on evidence from defectors and scientists from the former Soviet Union who helped develop the country's nuclear programme, as well as on satellite photographs of facilities at Yongbyon, north of the capital. It seemed reassuring when North Korea, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, finally agreed two years ago to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The outcome, however, was a crisis which has continued ever since.

Pyongyang, it emerged, had gone along with inspection only because it thought it could conceal the evidence of nuclear research for military purposes. Having underestimated modern monitoring techniques, it was caught in a lie.

Communism has collapsed almost everywhere else in the world, and notional adherents such as China and Vietnam ignore its economic principles. Only North Korea and Cuba could be said to remain faithful, and even Pyongyang recently admitted serious economic problems, although it denied reports of food shortages. Visitors have seen signs urging people to eat only two meals a day, and food riots have been rumoured. The hope of catching up with South Korea is a distant dream. The south is smaller, has twice the population and, in 1991, at least seven times the income per head.

President Kim, the centre of a ludicrous personality cult, has recently surrounded himself with more family members. Among those joining his son and designated heir, Kim Jong Il, in the limelight are his brother, his first wife and their son. All three had been out of sight for years. Again, observers can only guess at what is going on.

The US, the only party with which North Korea is prepared to negotiate on its nuclear programme, reports some progress during informal talks in New York. Washington's allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, have not always found the Clinton administration's policy to be coherent, while China, virtually Pyongyang's only friend, has made it clear that it will not go along with economic sanctions should the talks fail.

Even if the nuclear threat can be defused, there remains the danger of a conventional military clash between the two Koreas. Pyongyang's internal repression and economic miseries could bring a bloody Romanian-style collapse. South Korea, fearing a flood of refugees and having witnessed the economic effects of German unification, is urging everyone else not to push its neighbour over the edge.

(Map omitted)

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