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Room with a view

"Room with a view" Continued...

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

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.

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