American businessman Roy Browning has a front-row seat for the unusual signs of change emerging from North Korea. Mr. Browning lives in a high-rise in Dandong on the Chinese side of the border with North Korea, overlooking the Yalu River that separates the two countries. He has been there for three years, but in recent months the usually well-sealed border has come unglued, admitting more North Koreans into China. Mr. Browning has talked with several businessmen and North Korean officials, accompanied by KGB-style secret police.
"Trade across the border with civilian officials has increased dramatically in the last few months, and our connections have also increased in frequency," he told WORLD on Feb. 21. "We have even been able to talk to some very senior officials with their secret police looking on. This is very strange and implies that things are loosening up but with a lot of apprehension."
Why the sudden activity? Mr. Browning hears from his sources that "the state is being increasingly controlled by the military and the higher ranking civilian officials due to the strain that a possible Bush invasion was causing," he said.
Those rumors intensified late last year after reports that portraits of Mr. Kim, which dominate Pyongyang's public buildings, had been removed. Insiders claimed the portraits and other Kim images were removed to be cleaned, or because their presence had drawn comparisons to Saddam Hussein. But South Korean officials took them seriously enough to dust off decades-old contingency plans for civil emergency in the event of a collapse to the north.
Any such retooling of Mr. Kim's likeness is significant in the country, which has built a cult of personality around the Kims. Great Leader Kim Il Sung remains president for life, even after his 1994 death. His son, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, is supposed to command singular loyalty. The country's goals of reunifying with South Korea and defeating U.S. "imperialism" hinge on the presence of an all-powerful leader. One of the younger Kim's sayings is, "To expect victory in a revolution without a leader is as good as wishing for a flower where there is no sun."
But the persistence of the rumors are significant, given North Korea's announcement in February that it has nuclear weapons. Activists and observers used to probing the communist country's idiosyncrasies believe a dramatic change is slowly underway, one that is shifting power away from dictator Kim Jong Il and toward a cabal of military generals.
Mr. Browning first learned last November that portraits of Kim Jong Il had been taken down from public display across the country. Though official denials quickly followed, his sources are adamant the portraits were removed. He also noticed that North Koreans he met coming across the border were hiding their "Dear Leader" pins inside their coats instead of displaying them over their hearts as mandated.
From his 12th-floor apartment window, where the Oregon resident lives while overseeing a semiconductor equipment business he co-owns in the city, he further noticed more-than-usual cargo-truck convoys waiting to cross the border on the bridge leading to Dandong, the only land-link between the two nations. Before, there were about 10 to 15 trucks a week; now between 50 and 70 lined up each day.
As first reported by The Oregonian, Mr. Browning also has seen North Korean trucks driving within Dandong, identifiable by their number plates and exhaust fumes that smell like burning tires-literally, he said, because North Korea recycles tires for fuel. Then there are the businessmen he has met, buying rice, vegetables, and other food and even computers, while selling their own products. From all these signs, he speculates that momentous change is afoot.
"I believe that we will see a slow disintegration followed by a revolution, although the revolution may not even be visible to outsiders," he said. "It is difficult to see things happening even as close as we are because of the strict control the country has. If you can imagine Nazi Germany in 1939 and then make it much worse, you will then have the situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea."
While Mr. Browning is seeing physical changes unfold before his eyes, others are coming to similar conclusions watching other signs. Seoul-based Korean-American human-rights activist Douglas Shin has been tracking blips in North Korea's usually predictable propaganda. From subtle rewordings in the state press and from reports Mr. Shin receives from a high-ranking North Korean official, he believes a band of military generals has already sidelined Mr. Kim.
Most unusual, Mr. Shin said, is Kim Jong Il's virtual disappearance from the public eye. "This kind of thing on this scale has never happened before," Mr. Shin said. "Kim Jong Il has never spent more than five months away from outsiders' view." Yet even photos released of Mr. Kim with Chinese envoy Wang Jiarui in late February appear dated. The same entourage from Mr. Wang's North Korea visit last year is shown.
Mr. Shin said official news organs are increasingly highlighting subordinates more than Kim Jong Il. At a Feb. 2-3 meeting of the "General Onward March for the Songun Revolution," a pow-wow of the Communist Party leadership introduced 10 years ago by Mr. Kim to reinforce military-socialist indoctrination, the rhetoric shifted slightly away from praising Mr. Kim alone and toward the military leadership around him. An editorial in the country's state-run newspaper, the Rodong Shinmun, carried "very unfamiliar terminology," Mr. Shin said. "It said all the people have to protect and follow-usually Kim Jong Il-but this time also the head leadership. It was a plural concept with Kim Jong Il at the peak."
Mr. Shin is persuaded enough by such signs to believe the military generals are gradually consolidating their power. He speculates that they found themselves in a dilemma. On one side the United States was pressuring North Korea to disarm. On the other, Mr. Kim feared he would lose power if he did give up nuclear weapons. After all, his belligerent rule is necessary to project the urgency of defending North Korea against an impending U.S. invasion. The only solution, Mr. Shin believes, was to sideline Mr. Kim. North Korea's declaration that it has nuclear weapons could be, he said, the generals "bluffing for the last time."
Still, decoding secretive North Korea remains an intensely speculative parlor game. Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea, a group assisting North Korean refugees, also hears growing chatter from his contacts about changes in Pyongyang. They confirm the increased border activity Mr. Browning has witnessed, but note that while approved forays into China have multiplied, a parallel clamp-down on refugees escaping North Korea has occurred on both sides of the border.
While Mr. Peters believes Mr. Kim is suffering challenges to his rule, he is not sure the bouffant-haired dictator has lost control just yet. "I don't think we should underestimate the staying power of this regime," he said. "Not because Kim Jong Il is so powerful, but because of the [indoctrination]. There's a joke that if any two people had a conversation that was even remotely critical of the government, they would both inform the authorities."
In the meantime, Mr. Browning has noticed another odd development across the Yalu. North Koreans seem to be re-occupying an abandoned village just outside of border-town Sinuiju. That is unusual because the village is too close to the river, he said. Anyone wanting to escape could swim across, or almost walk across, when the water level is low.
He said North Korean businessmen and regime officials are in evidence in Dandong at least once a week, compared to six months ago, when he only heard about one or two showing up. Asking about Mr. Kim's hold on power, now that rumors circulate, is a touchy subject. "They'll just clam up-they won't say a word," he said. "Something's going on, but it's difficult to find out." With North Korea suggesting last week it may be ready to resume six-party talks over its nuclear arsenal, knowing just who holds the levers of power will be crucial for the United States and its allies.