Last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's oldest son, Kim Jong Nam, became the target of an assassination plot while on a trip to Austria. However, no attempt on his life was made thanks to the vigilance of Austrian security forces.
South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported the plot may have been masterminded by supporters of Kim Jong Il's other sons, who apparently don't want Kim Jong Nam to succeed their father.
The Japanese government, however, remains skeptical of the theory. Naoki Ito, chief of the Foreign Ministry's Northeast Asia Division, said: ``We have confirmed that (Kim Jong Nam) visited (Austria) but have not acknowledged (that there was a plot).''
But what is certain is that reports of unusual developments concerning North Korea are on the rise.
Kim Jong Il has three sons: Kim Jong Nam, born to former actress Sung Hae Rim, and Kim Jong Chul and Kim Jong Woong, who were born to former dancer Ko Young Hee.
Chang Song Taek, the husband of Kim Jong Il's younger sister, was ousted early this year. Since Chang is known to have close ties with Kim Jong Nam, his downfall is seen as the start of a power struggle for succession.
Scenarios for an unstable North Korea are suddenly emerging. But some see the signs merely as elements of psychological warfare between the United States and North Korea.
Since it will be difficult to settle the North Korean nuclear issue by military means, the United States is leaning toward ``soft regime transformation.'' It is attempting to break the regime from the inside by making a big fuss over signs of unusual developments within North Korea.
Meanwhile, North Korea is once again using the situation to ``tighten the regime.'' As its economic and social problems grow increasingly serious, the government is fanning the public's sense of crisis in an attempt to prolong its life. However, it is difficult to categorize the problem of succession as psychological warfare.
Smooth succession is one of the weaknesses of dictatorships. Throughout Soviet history, not a single person who rose to the pinnacle of power did so as initially planned. Without exception, leaders rose to the top through power struggles. Even planned regimes cannot plan the succession of leaders.
Kim Il Sung tried to overcome the succession hurdle through heredity. In 1974, he named his son Kim Jong Il as his successor. The decision was accepted based on his status as the ``great leader.'' In the three decades since, his sons have grown close to the age when he was named his father's successor.
Kim Jong Il himself is about the same age as his late father when he chose his successor. There have been fragmentary reports that Kim Jong Il told his children not to rely on their father's influence. But there are no signs that he is providing special training for them to assume leadership.
There are a number of possible reasons.
If he names his successor, he would immediately become a lame duck because everyone would bow to the next leader. That is what is keeping him from making the decision.
Kim Jong Il is the son of Kim Il Sung's lawful wife, but Kim Jong Il is not legally married to either mother of his sons. It is difficult to pass the baton to someone who was born out of wedlock.
It could also give China an excuse to interfere in North Korea's internal affairs. When Kim Jong Il inherited his father's position, China opposed, arguing that hereditary succession had no place in socialism.
Maybe Kim Jong Il is thinking that hereditary succession is a dead end. North Korea's economy and society are both in turmoil. And random economic liberalization is about to disrupt the social order. Take the example of Kim Il Song badges. They all look the same, but actually are different according to one's class and rank. But now people can buy badges worn by high-ranking people. The social order in North Korea is breaking down.
But even more tumultuous is the state of people's minds. An activist with a nongovernmental organization that provides humanitarian assistance to North Koreans said he was surprised at the large number of people who are secretly converting to Christianity.
``Recently, a North Korean military leader timidly advised Kim Jong Il that it may be wiser to refrain from having his son succeed him,'' said a South Korea diplomat well-versed in North Korean affairs, though he stressed it was just a rumor. ``Kim Jong Il told him that he would not do that. At the same time, he suggested the idea of making the post a symbol of the state like the Japanese emperor.'' It looks like the rumor is spreading in North Korea.
But it is thanks to Kim Jong Il's solitary reign that the North Korean regime has remained stable despite its impoverished state.
Former North Korean Prime Minister Kang Song San's son-in-law Kang Myung Do, who defected to South Korea 10 years ago, once said: ``If (the) Kim Jong Il (regime) goes down, North Korea is expected to fall into utter chaos. The situation may even lead to an invasion of South Korea. It may sound like a paradox, but Kim Jong Il is preventing war.''
The observation was made around the time it was rumored that the Kim Jong Il regime was about to collapse.
Neither collective leadership nor decentralization is an option for North Korea, where dictatorship is the only way. But hereditary succession is difficult. Thus, there is no way to draft a scenario for a stable post-Kim Jong Il North Korea.