TOKYO — North Korea is a little bit like Oz, in that no one outside the country is absolutely sure who is in charge. What's going on there is important: North Korea has a million strong Army and may have the components for an atomic bomb.
The country has been in the news lately because of severe food shortages that may cause famine this year. And something is afoot within the communist leadership - one senior official is in China trying to defect to South Korea, the prime minister was recently dismissed, and two top military leaders died last month.
Aside from mentioning these events in its state-run media, North Korea appears to proceed as if nothing much is amiss. Its officials will sit down for talks with US and South Korean diplomats in New York March 5. But the world is watching to see if the North is as stable as it seems.
Concern over North Korea works on at least three levels, depending on your focus. If you concentrate on the country itself, it is clear that most North Koreans are hungry and that their government is in the middle of a difficult transition.
Step back and you see a peninsula populated by a single people split into two since the end of the Korean War in 1953. The two Koreas are the last of the cold war's divided countries, but the ever-present potential for conflict between them is the greatest threat to East Asia's stability.
Widen your focus even further and China, Japan, and Russia come into view, along with 100,000 US troops stationed at bases in the region, including 36,000 in South Korea. The peninsula has long been a battleground for other countries.
Five decades before the Korean War, Russia and Japan fought over Korea. Japan won, giving it confidence to pursue a policy of invasion and colonization in Asia that culminated in World War II.
Tight view: a grim situation
The lives of North Koreans have long been regimented by the communist Workers Party, its ideology of self-reliance, and its worship of the country's leaders. Today, however, North Koreans need outside help.
According to the United Nations World Food Program, a majority of North Koreans depend on government rations for survival. These rations, the WFP said in February, have been cut to 100 to 150 grams a day, a quarter of basic nutritional needs.
This grim situation is the product of North Korea's planned economy, the isolation brought on by the collapse of fellow socialist states around the world, and two years of heavy flooding in the country's food-growing areas.
The country has sought some foreign investment to invigorate its economy, but it is unclear whether the government fully supports this strategy. Internal debate over opening the country may be contributing to a struggle for power.
Kim Il Sung, the nation's founder, determined some 20 years ago that his son Kim Jong Il should rule the country next - the communist world's first dynastic succession. The elder Kim died on July 8, 1994, and since then his son has apparently been consolidating power behind the scenes.
The defection last month of Hwang Jang Yop, a senior official described as North Korea's Thomas Jefferson, suggests trouble. But what kind of trouble? Some analysts say that military hard-liners allied with Kim Jong Il are battling reform-minded bureaucrats. Others say the contest is between age groups, with members of Kim Jong Il's generation evicting the men who ruled alongside his father.
Still others say that the transition of power is smooth and that Kim Jong Il has put loyalists in place, especially within the military.
Middle view: a hostile peninsula
The strip of no-man's land separating North and South Korea is easily the most militarized border on the planet. The North is estimated to have more than 1 million troops and the South 633,000.
The tension spikes and subsides, usually in response to incursions by North Korean agents or military exercises by the United States and South Korea. Broadcasts from the North continually insult South Korean President Kim Young Sam. Southern hard-liners routinely predict the collapse of the North and its regime.
Both Koreas compete for the attention of the US. In the early 1990s, the US and an international nuclear monitoring agency were worried that North Korea was secretly preparing to produce atomic weapons. But that concern has abated since an October 1994 agreement between the US and North Korea. The North agreed to freeze its program in exchange for oil supplies and two brand-new reactors that are less capable of producing weapons-grade nuclear material.
This deal was a milestone, since North Korea dealt directly with the US, bypassing its hostile southern neighbor. The North has always derided South Korea as a weak state that does American bidding. Some analysts say that North Korea sees improved relations with the US as the key to its economic future, since a seal of approval from Washington would ease the concerns of investors.
South Koreans bristled at the arrangement, but agreed to provide most of the funding and technical expertise needed for the new reactors. South Korea sees unification as an inevitability and knows it must promote economic development in the North. Sooner or later, the theory goes, the South will have to bring North Korea into the modern world.
South Korea puts up with the North partly in the interests of bringing about a "soft landing" - gradually developing and opening up North Korea. This process should make unification less of an economic shock. At the same time, southerners are suspicious of the North negotiating directly with the US. South Korea, after all, is the American ally on the peninsula.
Wide angle: regional anxiety
Koreans, looking at the world around them, have long considered their country a shrimp among whales. A century ago the whales were Russia and Japan. Those two countries are still not to be trifled with, but the long-range struggle for power on the Korean peninsula concerns China and the US.
With the cold war over, the days of the North Korean regime are numbered. Even in the worst-case scenario, in which the North Korean military attempts an invasion of the South, it's impossible to believe that the South would not ultimately prevail. Its own military is considered adequate to the task, and it has an alliance with the US. North Korea's military is large, but lacks fuel, spare parts, and allies that would assist in a crisis.
The opposite scenario, in which the North's regime opens up and withers, as the Soviet Union did, still produces the same result: a unified Korea. After some catch-up time, the country should emerge as an economic powerhouse with a relatively powerful military.
This is the kind of development, as foreign-policy analysts say, that upsets the balance of power. It certainly raises questions: How will China react? Will a unified Korea maintain its US alliance or take a more independent role? And how will the Japanese and the Russians adjust to the new reality?
China, now politically allied with the North but economically friendly with the South, would have to contend with having a US-backed military on its border. To put off this unhappy day, the Chinese may prefer the status quo.