BEIJING // North Korea is facing a countdown to collapse, according to analysts and media in the region, as the totalitarian state lurches from one crisis to another and the life expectancy of its aged leader Kim Jong Il is put at "less than three years".
A food shortage, malfunctioning markets, botched economic reform and the alleged execution of a senior official in charge of that reform to quell the mounting public discontent, compounded by reports of rare public protests in North Korea, has led some to predict the regime's demise "If North Korea's situation goes on like this, its collapse will be a matter of 'counting down seconds'," South Korea's largest newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, said in a front-page analysis on Saturday. It added that the US assistant secretary of state, Kurt Campbell, recently said in a closed-door meeting in Seoul that Mr Kim, 68, is likely to survive only about three more years.
The paper also quoted remarks made at a conference on inter-Korean relations last week by Kim Young-Soo, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Sogang University, who said there was a real possibility of an "unprecendented contingency" in the North, a sudden transformation of the state either through a coup or civil unrest. Ryu Kil-jae of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said the likelihood of Pyongyang's collapse was still some time off but was growing.
"The chance for a sudden upheaval in North Korea has already passed a 20 per cent threshold at least," he said. Park Hyung-joong, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul also speaking at the conference, said the North's plan to transfer power from Kim Jong Il to his youngest son - something that has become apparent in recent years through leaked reports from the North and which is much discussed in the South - will "eventually fail."
Lee Su-hyuck, a former chief nuclear negotiator for Seoul who also worked for South Korea's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, told the conference it was time to prepare for North Korea's collapse. Chosun Ilbo also had a link to an article titled: "Where does North Korea head in the post-Kim Jong Il era?" Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said Pyongyang's inability to implement political and economic order would ultimately bring about its demise.
"North Korea's economic, political malfunctioning now is very severe," said Prof Shi. "They failed in their monetary reforms recently. Orderly leadership succession is more urgent now, but the process is very much underperformed. "It's possible for North Korea to collapse earlier than everyone previously predicted." But Prof Shi added that North Korea's opaqueness makes it nearly impossible to verify external assessments of its internal chaos.
And others have cast doubt on those negative assessments. Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Sejong Institute think-tank, said predictions of North Korea's collapse were more "wishful thinking" among those who want to see it happen, rather than an objective assessment of the situation. "The North Korea collapse scenario is nothing new. It has been coming for 20 years since the collapse of the Eastern Europe socialist bloc. During the mid-1990s, the CIA chief even said North Korea would collapse within three months. It didn't," Mr Cheong said.
Kenneth Quinones, a former North Korea analyst at the US state department and now the dean for Korean Studies at Akita International University in Japan, agreed. "I was at the White House 10 days ago. Nobody there agreed that North Korea is on the verge of collapse. They see North Korea continuing to function with its problems," Prof Quinones said. He added that he did not believe the reports in certain South Korean media that Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state, had told officials in Seoul that Mr Kim had three years to live.
Mr Cheong said there were three main reasons the North is unlikely to collapse in the near future: Mr Kim has a firm grip over the ruling Worker's Party, which controls the military; the ruling elites are strong and united and have a shared interest in maintaining the regime that bestows so much privilege upon them; and despite the level of discontent among the North Korean public, they are unlikely to openly rebel, especially given the strength of the military.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said last week that despite the fact that North Korea has been shaken by sanctions and poor internal policy decisions that have generated public anger, the regime "has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to survive under pressure". Some analysts also caution against the habit of media and researchers quoting North Korean defectors living in the South and dissidents from within North Korea to assess the country's current situation. These often paid informants tend to sensationalise the situation in the North for their own political purposes or for attention.
"President George W Bush made his judgment on the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction based on totally inaccurate information coming from Iraqi defectors," Prof Quinones said. At the same time, however, Prof Shi said it would be wrong to dismiss the possibility of a crisis in the North. "Of course, we don't know for sure about North Korea's collapse. Possibility is possibility," he said. "But the potential for crisis is more pronounced in North Korea than ever."