A high-ranking defector from North Korea yesterday painted an alarming picture of military instability in the isolated Stalinist state, including the government's plans to target American troops in the event of a war with South Korea.
Choe Ju Hwal, 46, a lieutenant-colonel in the North Korean army, defected to the South last month through an unnamed south-east-Asian country. In Seoul yesterday, he described the military's resistance to North Korea's de facto ruler, the "violent, capricious and hysterical" Kim Jong Il.
The "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung died in July 1994, but 15 months later his chosen successor, his son, still has not assumed the presidency. Last week he made a rare appearance at a military parade marking the anniversary of the North Korean Communist Party but the eulogies in the media still referred to him by his old titles.
The conventional explanation for the delay has been the dire economic situation in the North, which is suffering rice shortages following floods. But Colonel Choe said despite his nominal command of the armed forces, and despite cultivating senior officers with gifts of mansions and foreign limousines, "Kim Jong Il has has no firm power in the military with which to keep a grip on the ruling hierarchy.
"There was a coup attempt by a group of generals in 1992, but all of them were executed," he said. "I think that a lot of senior military officers pretend to be obedient to him, but harbour a secret animosity."
Colonel Choe also set out North Korea's contingency plan, in the event of a future Korean war, to attack the 37,000 US troops stationed in the South. "North Korean military leaders believe that if attacks are first focused on the US troops and several thousand US soldiers are killed or injured, there will be anti-war demonstrations by US citizens, leading to a break in the alliance with South Korea," he said.
The two Koreas have not signed a treaty since the armistice ended the Korean War in 1953.
South Korea regularly parades refugees from the North but few defectors have been as high-ranking as Colonel Choe, who left behind, to an unknown fate, his wife, three children and his elderly mother.