Tuesday, January 30, 2007

North Korean coup rumors denied

South Korean intelligence sources have joined Japanese and Chinese diplomats to deny rumors printed by a Japanese press agency claiming that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il is under house arrest while a a military coup is underway in Pyongyang. Citing a South Korean source, Japan's Jiji Press published rumors that the North Korean army has placed the "Dear Leader" under house arrest in one of his many coastal villas while a power struggle rages in the capital.

Rumors of Kim's ouster have surfaced before. In 2004, public manifestations of Kim's previously all invasive personality cult started to disappear without explanation. Yet recently, deification of Kim resumed stronger than ever, again without explanation.

Following North Korea's diplomatically disastrous nuclear tests, Kim finds himself increasingly isolated politically. North Korea's relations with China, formerly a steadfast ally of North Korea, have been seriously strained by Kim's bizarre belligerence towards the west. In addition to crippling United Nations sanctions that have brought the flow of goods over the Chinese border to a near halt, Kim is increasingly turning to bizarre schemes to ward off famine in the countryside while somehow managing to continue paying and arming his soldiers.

Kim is doubtlessly aware that if military leaders lose confidence in his ability to lead, pay and supply North Korea's ludicrously enormous military, he increases the risk of being overthrown in a military coup d'etat. While Chinese power brokers Beijing publicly worry about "instability" in North Korea, there are increasing signs that they are reaching the end of their patience with Kim. The Chinese have made it clear that they are seeking to halt any potential flow of refugees, a de-escalation of tension with the United States and China's major East Asian trading partners, and even re-uniting Korea under South Korean terms.

While the rumors of Kim's ouster do not appear to be accurate this time, it seems that it's only a matter of time before his power is challenged in earnest domestically. State sponsored smuggling and drug trafficking alone will not provide enough hard currency to keep the army from getting restless, meaning that every day that passes without serious purges at the top increases Kim's chance of proving today's baseless rumors to be true tomorrow.

POLL UPDATE: Time is running out to vote for the next dictator to be profiled in depth for my Top 10 dictators list. If you haven't already done so, vote early and often!

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