North Korean Regime Seen as Weakeninghttp://online.wsj.com/article/SB20001424052702304434404575149520133311894.html
SEOUL—North Korea's authoritarian regime appears to be weakening and the prospect of its collapse is being discussed anew by longtime observers, though there is still a broad debate about when that could happen.
The 16-year-old government of dictator Kim Jong Il for years defied outsiders' predictions of collapse, surviving amid debilitating poverty, hunger and external hostility. It has kept North Korea's 24 million citizens isolated and docile by instilling in them fear of extreme punishment, and by controlling information, travel and trade.
But new pressures are bringing fresh doubts about the regime's ability to keep going. Those include signs that Mr. Kim is in poor health, and indications that the population is increasingly hungry and restive following the government's failure to deliver basic necessities after it tried to shut down market activities four months ago. Even the information blockade is crumbling. A nascent cellphone industry is making it possible for more North Koreans to talk—and to report on difficulties and unrest—to outsiders, and more DVDs of TV shows and CDs of music from free and prosperous South Korea are smuggled into the country.
The rising prospect of collapse is chiefly expressed by a range of professors, military experts and think-tank analysts who scrutinize Pyongyang's power elite. Those observers have pointed to weaknesses in the regime in the past, particularly after the death of Mr. Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994, but they seemed to have settled into a belief in the regime's stability. Last month, however, the chatter began to change.
"It's like a taboo that's been broken," said Daniel Pinkston, an analyst at the Seoul office of International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based group that reports on conflict areas.
These voices were joined last week by that of Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of the combined U.S., South Korea and United Nations forces that defend South Korea, who told a congressional panel in Washington of the military's concerns about instability in North Korea.
"The possibility of a sudden leadership change in the North could be destabilizing and unpredictable," Gen. Sharp told the panel, pointing to what he called "the country's disastrous centralized economy, dilapidated industrial sector, insufficient agricultural base, malnourished military and populace and developing nuclear programs."
Kim Young-soo, professor of North Korea politics at Sogang University in Seoul, garnered headlines in South Korea last month by calling on the South's government to prepare for sudden change in the North.
"North Korea is on the verge of collapse," Mr. Kim said in an interview. "It is a crisis not only because of Kim's illness, the food shortage and failed currency reform, but also because of a failed government."
A divide already exists between political and military leaders, drawing the lines of a power struggle that can only escalate on Kim Jong Il's death. If the family is to keep power, his brother-in-law would likely be next in line until the expected heir—the leader's 27-year-old son, Kim Jong Eun—is ready to take over.
North Korea has responded to the observations. On Friday, Pyongyang lashed out when a South Korean newspaper reported that military experts from China, South Korea and the U.S. would meet next month to discuss contingencies in the event of the regime's collapse.
No such meeting has been confirmed. Even so, the North's military cited the report in a statement that said, "Those who try to bring down the system ... will fall victim to the unprecedented nuclear strikes of the invincible army."