For North Koreans living in the most isolated country in the world, two dramatic changes appear poised to reshape the enigmatic nation: an aging leader contemplating the first shift of power in decades, and a worsening economy that threatens a return to famine.
Members of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party were set to meet in Pyongyang on Sept. 28 for the first time in nearly 66 years, and many expected North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to begin the process for his third son to become his successor. A power shift seemed inevitable: Kim Jong Il, 69, reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008 and has since appeared frail in sporadic public appearances.
Whoever assumes power in North Korea inherits a crisis at home and abroad. Aid groups say a devalued currency and rising prices have led to food shortages in many regions that could spiral into the kind of famine that killed massive numbers of North Koreans in the 1990s. Severe flooding in August worsened humanitarian conditions and left North Korean officials asking South Korea for rice-a desperate move considering the tense relations between the two nations.
South Korea offered $10 million in aid to its northern neighbor during the same week it issued a final report on the sinking of a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 sailors. South Korean officials say North Korea torpedoed the craft.
The Obama administration announced details of new financial sanctions against North Korea, partly in response to the sinking of the South Korean ship. The sanctions targeted about a dozen North Koreans and groups that U.S. officials believe are helping the country develop and sell conventional arms and weapons of mass destruction. The sanctions also target Office 39-a clandestine unit of the Workers' Party that officials believe serves as a slush fund for Kim Jong Il. U.S. officials say while millions of North Koreans faced food shortages, members of Office 39 helped import two luxury yachts worth $15 million for Kim Jong Il last year.
While North Koreans wait to see how a regime change might change the regime, minority groups are especially eager for signs of relief. Carl Moeller of Open Doors USA, a group supporting persecuted Christians, urges Christians to pray that any change coming to North Korea would be "a positive one for the Christians there-including the 40,000 to 50,000 believers who are suffering in North Korean prison camps where 200,000 people are held."
The group says one North Korean contact reported that North Koreans are hungry for change that will improve their lives, not just topple a leader. "Fifteen years ago Kim Jong Il was still considered a god, but all these years of hunger have left the people disillusioned," he said. "They have stopped believing the lie. Each time they put their trust in their leader, he has let them down."