After weeks of reports from North Korea of defecting generals, anti-government posters and the disappearance of portraits of the country's ruler, the leader of Japan's governing party warned on Sunday of the prospects of "regime change" in North Korea.
"As long as Chairman Kim Jong-il controls the government, we have to negotiate with him, but it is becoming more doubtful whether we will be able to achieve anything with this government," said Shinzo Abe, acting secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, on Fuji TV, referring to talks on North Korea's abductions of Japanese in the 1970s. "I think we should consider the possibility that a regime change will occur, and we need to start simulations of what we should do at that time."
By breaking an unspoken taboo on talking publicly about "regime change" in North Korea, the powerful Japanese politician underlined a feeling spreading in the region that cracks are starting to show in the Kim family's control over North Korea after nearly 60 years.
Hard intelligence is difficult to come by in North Korea, one of the world's most tightly controlled societies, where people are barred from sending letters abroad, making international telephone calls, emigrating or talking to foreigners without supervision. To dissuade defections, the government routinely imprisons relatives left behind.
But in recent months, there have been signs of fissures in these walls. There are indications that news is leaking out of North Korea by cell-phone and that criticisms of the government are being posted in public places. Those developments and the angry response to recent legislation in the US intended to flood the country with radios that can pick up foreign broadcasts suggest that the leadership realizes its one great achievement -- near total information control -- is threatened.
With the reports of Kim's portraits being removed from some public buildings and news of military defections, outside analysts are speculating that the personality cult around "Dear Leader" is being curbed, either to advance painful economic reforms or to head off a military coup fomented by China. Persistent reports that anti-Kim leaflets and posters have recently appeared gained more credibility with the publication last Thursday in Sankei Shimbun, a conservative Tokyo newspaper, of what was described as a photograph of a hand-printed flyer smuggled out of North Korea.
"Juche philosophy made people slaves," it read, referring to the nationalist ideology of self-reliance created by Kim's father, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. "Juche philosophy created an absolutist hereditary kingdom, rather than one where the people are the main players."
"The Kims, father and son, made our people miserably poor and this country a world dropout that is far away from the situation of meat soup, a tile-roofed house and silk clothes that Kim Il-sung promised by 1957," it continued.
Douglas Shin, a Korean-American pastor who helps North Korean refugees flee through China, said his contacts told him that posters opposed to Kim Jong-il had appeared in three northern cities this fall. On Sunday, the Kyodo news agency of Japan reported that North Korea was cracking down on people in border cities who helped pass letters to foreigners or used cell phones to communicate with the outside world.