American businessman Roy Browning has a front-row seat for the unusual signs of change emerging from North Korea. Mr. Browning lives in a high-rise in Dandong on the Chinese side of the border with North Korea, overlooking the Yalu River that separates the two countries.
Late last year, there were reports that portraits of Mr. Kim, which dominate Pyongyang's public buildings, had been removed. Insiders claimed the portraits and other Kim images were removed to be cleaned, or because their presence had drawn comparisons to Saddam Hussein.
Any such retooling of Mr. Kim's likeness is significant in the country, which has built a cult of personality around the Kims. Great Leader Kim Il Sung remains president for life, even after his 1994 death. His son, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, is supposed to command singular loyalty. The country's goals of reunifying with South Korea and defeating U.S. "imperialism" hinge on the presence of an all-powerful leader.
Activists and observers used to probing the communist country's idiosyncrasies believe a dramatic change is slowly underway, one that is shifting power away from dictator Kim Jong Il and toward a cabal of military generals.
North Koreans Mr. Browning met coming across the border were hiding their "Dear Leader" pins inside their coats instead of displaying them over their hearts as mandated.
From these signs, he speculates that momentous change is afoot. “It is difficult to see things happening even as close as we are because of the strict control the country has. If you can imagine Nazi Germany in 1939 and then make it much worse, you will then have the situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea."
Seoul-based Korean-American human-rights activist Douglas Shin has been tracking blips in North Korea's usually predictable propaganda. From subtle rewordings in the state press and from reports Mr. Shin receives from a high-ranking North Korean official, he believes a band of military generals has already sidelined Mr. Kim.
Still, decoding secretive North Korea remains an intensely speculative parlor game. Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea, a group assisting North Korean refugees, also hears growing chatter from his contacts about changes in Pyongyang. They confirm the increased border activity Mr. Browning has witnessed, but note that while approved forays into China have multiplied, a parallel clamp-down on refugees escaping North Korea has occurred on both sides of the border.
While Mr. Peters believes Mr. Kim is suffering challenges to his rule, he is not sure the bouffant-haired dictator has lost control just yet. "I don't think we should underestimate the staying power of this regime," he said. "Not because Kim Jong Il is so powerful, but because of the [indoctrination]. There's a joke that if any two people had a conversation that was even remotely critical of the government, they would both inform the authorities."
[Excerpted from an article by Priya Abraham, WORLD Magazine]