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Room with a view

Asia | An American businessman gets a bird's-eye look at what may be regime change underway in North Korea

Issue: "Foster care's future," March 5, 2005

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.

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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.

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