Fading Kim sets the stage for power play
The power of 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il over North Korea appears to be fraying at the edges - and perhaps even eroding at the core. That's the conclusion from two recent events, one in the far reaches of the country near the Yalu River border with China, the other inside his own ruling elite.
North Korean border guards are known to be trigger-happy. Most recently, however, they struck the wrong target, killing three Chinese citizens reportedly making off with some copper wiring.
That's not sitting well with the Chinese, who provide North Korea with about 80 per cent of the food and other supplies needed to keep the economy on life support.
While the Chinese were protesting about this affront to relations, Kim was busy putting his brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, into the position of vice-chairman of the national defence commission.
Jang was already regarded as the second-most powerful man in North Korea. With this formal appointment, he will presumably guarantee that Kim's third son, Kim Jong-un, succeeds him.
But why did Kim Jong-il feel the need to push through this appointment now? He is recovering from a stroke suffered nearly two years ago and has diabetes. He is hoping to hang on until 2012, by which time he should be ready to introduce Kim Jong-un, now 27, as his rightful heir.
But those in the next layer of power may have different ideas. Jang's authority depends almost entirely on that of Kim Jong-il.
When Kim goes, Jang should go, too. Kim's dream of Kim Jong-un's accession to the throne may not endure.
The shooting of the Chinese near the Yalu River crossing between the northern city of Sinuiju and the Chinese city of Dandong reveals the weakness of Kim's rule. He would surely not have wanted to offend the Chinese this way, but then he may not have much control. He can do little to stop the bribery, smuggling, plotting and vengeance that goes on up there.
All of which raises the question of how much he had to do with the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in the Yellow Sea in March, with a loss of the lives of 46 young sailors. Conventional wisdom is that Kim had to have ordered it. In the absence of any evidence to prove his role, however, it's also possible that his generals did it on their own or persuaded him to approve it.
That theory adds one more reason to why Kim needs his brother-in-law as defence commission vice-chairman, the second-highest post in the North Korean hierarchy. In the mysterious power game in Pyongyang, the appointment reveals the insecurity of the regime, the sense that its days are numbered and that real change, at least by 2012, has to happen.
No one is betting, though, on who will win - or whether the nature of North Korean dictatorship will change in a way that's likely to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Not even the Chinese, North Korea's benefactors, can guarantee the outcome, much less the security of their own cross-border traders.
Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals