South Korean, U.S. and Japanese foreign ministry officials talked about the possibility that the North Korean regime has lost control and gone off the rails since the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, it emerged Friday. On Thursday, President Lee Myung-bak said North Koreans are now much aware of the outside world. "I feel reunification is now not far off."
A senior government official said, "Having watched the North launch a series of provocations such as the torpedo attack on the Navy corvette Cheonan, its uranium enrichment program and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, officials in Seoul, Washington and Tokyo recently discussed the need to look at the North's latest movements from a completely new viewpoint."
He said some officials saw the Yeonpyeong attack as merely another round in a familiar pattern of provocations, "but others said that it shows that the situation on the Korean Peninsula has entered a new phase." This may mean the regime "has lost control internally," he added.
In the past, the North regularly alternated tensions and charm offensives to gain material aid and political profit, either through the six-party talks or direct contact with the U.S. It then launched another round of provocation if the aid dwindled.
"But when we were trying to create an atmosphere for dialogue early this year, they torpedoed the Cheonan," the government official said. "And when we were trying again to create such an atmosphere after the Cheonan attack, they shelled Yeonpyeong. The signals the North sends out are not as consistent as in the past."
◆ Cracks in the Regime
There are two possible explanations. One is that the regime with its nuclear capabilities judged that South Korea would not dare to respond to any provocation, but would have to accept negotiations for fear of escalation. The other is that the regime is cracking.
After leader Kim Jong-il had a stroke in August 2008, speculation emerged that the regime has changed. Before he collapsed, power was concentrated only in his hands. Nobody had talked about a "second-in-command," let alone a "successor."
Kim reacted swiftly to a rumor in 2004 that supporters were gathering around Jang Song-taek, the husband of his younger sister Kyong-hui, and ruthlessly purged Jang and his associates.
But with Kim's health deteriorating and his third son Jong-un established as his heir, the North has changed, say observers.
A North Korean source said, "There are some unusual signs now that it's difficult for Kim Jong-il to make all the decisions alone as before." He speculated that the process of transferring power to Kim Jong-un is going badly.
"After he was established as the heir apparent in the early 1970s, Kim Jong-il concentrated power around him for more than 10 years, but this is not the case with Kim Jong-un," said a former senior North Korean official who defected to the South.