Portraits of Kim Jong Il, general secretary of the North Korean Workers' Party, have reportedly disappeared from some public places.
They couldn't have been taken down for, say, cleaning, given that they represent the image of North Korea's ultimate personality cult.
It is natural to think the removal suggests some significant changes in the Stalinist state.
However, the South Korean administration of Roh Moo Hyun does not see it that way.
South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong Young said: ``Portraits remain in various public facilities that appear on North Korean television. We do not recognize any unusual signs at all.''
An ambassador of a major Western country shared the same view and added: ``We have started to prepare for a scenario of North Korean instability but it's just a scenario. It doesn't mean we anticipate the collapse of the North Korean regime.''
However, South Korean government officials who professionally analyze North Korea affairs take a more serious view.
One of them said: ``It may be the first sign that the government's foundation is starting to shake. Inflation, abduction and succession problems may underlie thesituation.''
In the summer of 2002, North Korea abolished price control, which led to inflation and the termination of rationing.
In the fall of the same year, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang to meet with Kim and talk about normalizing diplomatic relations.
At the meeting, the North Korean leader admitted to the abductions of Japanese civilians by North Korean agents and apologized.
Meanwhile, Kim lays the groundwork to name his successor by trying to eliminate potential rivals.
Such rivalry is causing confusion and antagonism within the administration's support base, in particular within the Workers' Party and the military, according to the official.
A former South Korean foreign minister said: ``We have information that China has started to secretly develop ties with a North Korean escapee who used to be a senior military officer.
Could it be that China is preparing for a scenario for North Korea's instability?''If that was the case, since China stands by the principle to send back defectors, giving such exceptional treatment to ex-military officials could mean a significant change.
Setting aside what is happening within the leadership, it is true that changes are taking place at the bottom as the situation of North Korean escapees shows.
Moon Kuk-han, who runs a nongovernmental organization that supports North Korean defectors in China, cited the following changes: Before, most escapees ran away by themselves, but now a growing number of them are escaping with their families; Up to now, many of the escapees were from Hamgyongpukto near the Chinese border, but now they come from across North Korea; More members and executives of the Workers' Party are fleeing from North Korea these days.
The analyst of North Korean affairs mentioned above added: ``Recently, more escapees are fleeing to South Korea to seek a better life and opportunities.
It shows that it is well known among North Koreans that South Korea is an affluent country.''
From now on, America's North Korean Human Rights Act may encourage the trend.
The law, which became effective in October with President George W. Bush's signature, is aimed at protecting the human rights of North Korean escapees and provides funding to nongovernmental organizations that support them.
It also stipulates the transmission of a Korean-language free Asian broadcast directed at North Korea.
Funding is limited to about $20 million.
The law may not immediately accelerate the trend but according to Moon, some North Korean escapees already know about it.
People living near the Chinese border are getting the latest news from China by cellphone.
The general public is also beginning to have access to information.
``The United States has finally started to show signs to accept North Korean escapees,'' Moon said, echoing their hopes.
Perhaps this is not the time to work out plans to deal with a scenario for North Korean instability.
Although unrest is starting to bubble at the bottom, the heat has yet to reach the core of the leadership.
The situation is far from coming to a boil.
However, if deprived mid-level officials come to develop discontent and grudge against the top with the abolition of food rationing, the scenario could become realistic.
What impact will it have on the nuclear problem?The greatest wall that stands before the settlement of North Korea's nuclear problem is the failure ofNorth Korea to make a ``strategic decision'' to give up its nuclear program and the U.S. failure to make a ``strategic decision'' for peaceful coexistence with North Korea.
Actually, the United States, which drove Libya into abandoning its nuclear program, wants to apply the Libya model to North Korea in a single-game match with its dictator.
However, if the scenario becomes real, the ability of General Secretary Kim to grasp the situation and make decisions may turn questionable.
As a result, the settlement of the nuclear problem could become even more difficult.
A military crash, possession of nuclear weapons and anarchy are enough to give us a big headache.
But when an unstable North Korea adds to the three great nightmares, it is sure to give everyone insomnia.
Let us carefully watch what happens to Kim's portraits.
The author is an Asahi Shimbun senior staff writer and foreign affairs columnist.