Anything is possible and credible in a country as bizarre and secretive as North Korea.
Last month South Korea claimed to have heard North Korean broadcasts from the demilitarized zone alleging that a severe power struggle is in progress and the country's President Kim Il-Sung has been assassinated.The third most powerful man in the country, Defense Minister O Jin-Uan, is known to have disappeared from sight at least two months ago. the 74-year old president, who has ruled for 40 years and is worshipped as a god by his 20 million people, is entering his twilight years and is handing over power to his son.
The north considers itself in a state of permanent siege and is officially at war on a divided peninsula. Even in the daytime loud and unexplained explosions shatter the unnatural stillness while at night the North Korean capital is lulled by bursts of martial music broadcasts and ghostly heavenly choirs. Soldiers in Soviet-style uniforms are present everywhere. A group of young soldiers trailing bazookas or Kalashnikov rifles wandering down the main street attracts no interest from passersby.
The Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung, continues to tread a precarious path between his two hugeneighbors, China and the Soviet Union who are competing for influence. But his two supreme objectives - maintaining North Korea's independence and achieving reunification - look increasingly less attainable. His window of opportunity to invade the south is receding along with its military superiority and he faces awkward choices if he is to obtain advanced technology and open up to the outside world.
In the most secretive and tightly controlled society in the world even foreigners living in Pyongyang are wary of speaking openly in their own homes for fear of being monitored.
Gen. O may have disappeared as early as June 30 after a "car accident" on a deserted street at night in Pyongyang. The more credible story is that Gen. O was in a genuine accident that took place in the countryside around Sept. 6.
There are definite indications though that the defense minister is not in disgrace and is expected to return to his post provided he recovers, according to East European sources. Yet in country so closed that even most basic statistics are not available and most are even unsure who is in the ruling Politburo, political assessments are often based on hints and repeated whispers.
However, both the Great Leader and his son, the Dear Leader, 44-year old Kim Jong-Il are thought to need the support of the general to guarantee the succession. For the past six years Kim Jong-Il has been the object of a personality cult as grotesque as that of his father in preparation for his succession. Yet it is also rumored that he has quarreled with the general for over a year. Diplomats suggest the general has attacked Kim Jong-Il and the younger generation of officers are for aligning themselves too strongly with the Soviet Union in order to gain access to advanced weapons needed to counter the growing technological superiority of the south.
Observers agree North Korea is tilting strongly toward the Soviet Union since Kim Il-Sung's "milestone" visit to Moscow in 1984.
Since then North Korea is firmly believed to have obtained MiG-23 fighter jets, allowed Soviet reconnaissance flights to cross North Korea, allowed a naval port call by the Soviet Red Army Pacific Fleet to the port of Wonsong a year and a half ago and possibly another to Nampo port on the west coast. Perhaps the most telling evidence was the presence of 40 Soviet delegations on the Aug. 15 Independence Day celebrations. Only three Chinese delegations attended. Later, President Kim also made the exceptional gesture of attending a banquet at the Soviet embassy. Several observers heard reports that Kim Jong-Il was openly contemptuous of the Chinese after his first official visit in 1983 and following the October visit of Chinese President Li Xiannian.
China is not regarded as a source of weapons and is thought to be mediating in favor of cross recognition by which the West would recognize the north and the Soviet bloc would recognize the south. President Kim must regard this as unacceptable because it could lead to a permanent division of the country.
The tilt to the Soviet Union is thought to have angered the older North Korean leaders who fear that any Soviet demands to establish a military base in the country imperils its independence and non-aligned status. The Great Leader's Juche philosophy of self-determination could not admit the stationing of foreign troops, particularly since the 40,000 U.S. troops in the south are the prime target of Pyongyang's anti-imperialist propaganda.
Last month's allegations by South Korea that it had monitored North Korean broadcasts along the demilitarized zone claiming that the Great Leader had been assassinated or is caught up in a serious power struggle might fit into this picture.
But not all diplomats in Pyongyang are certain the broadcasts did take place. "It was a deliberate tactic to see who would put his head above the parapet. It could only be directed at the top leadership since they alone can tune in to shortwave radio broadcasts," said one diplomat. Intrigue and factionalism are endemic to a political setup such as North Korea.
In July an important party meeting indicated that not all was well within the party when President Kim gave a long speech calling to remove ''idealogical weeds." "I don't believe there is a power struggle since the succession was settled some time ago but there are still intrigues," asserted one authoritative source. Korea has not seen a purge for some time."
Vicious power struggles took place before and after the Korean war and again in 1966 and 1967. Kim Il-Sung's younger brother Kim Yong-Ju is said to have disappeared over 10 years ago after bidding to become the successor. About that time, his nephew's star began to rise.
Kim Jong-Il has built up a strong power base with the party, but there are reliable indications he also aroused anger by showing an equally large interest in parties.
His greatest weakness is that he never served in the army and may have little support among the military.
His father retains firm control of foreign relations and has so far not entrusted his son with this key area. Instead, the younger Kim has gradually been given responsibilities covering propaganda, ideology and economic management. He is suspected of having provoked his father's anger by the 1983 Rangoon bombing in which 17 South Korean officials died, including four cabinet members, and for which Dear Leader is widely held responsible.
While North Korean propaganda churns out almost exclusively paeans of praise on the Dear Leader's achievements, most of it recounts the building of extravagant monuments. The list of "great revolutionary changes" that have taken place "in every field of revolution and construction" under the wise and dynamic guidance of Dear Leader, cited for instance in Korea Today magazine, is slim. It only includes "new giant monumental creations such as the tower of the Juche Idea, the arch of triumph, the Kim Il-Sung stadium, the ice rink, etc., which have been built at "a miraculous speed unknown in history."
At the same time, North Korea's economy has performed short of expectations. The last seven-year economic plan, due to end in 1984, has had to be extended for two years because the targets were not met. A new plan is expected to be announced soon. There are no indications that Great Leader is stepping down and diplomats who have met him report that he has not lost his ability to impress. All in Pyongyang believe his popularity among the people remains undiminished. As 16-year-old schoolgirl Jo Hong-Hi asserted to visitors last week: "Kim Il-Sung will never die. He must be alive forever
because he leads our people to everlasting happiness."