Assassination reports turn spotlight on secretive N. Korea

Kim Il Sung, autocratic ruler of communist North Korea, has been assassinated. No he hasn't, but a vicious power struggle is taking place in North Korea. At press time yesterday, these were the rumors and counter-rumors swirling about Seoul. Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, remained silent - though its embassies in Peking and Moscow vigorously denied the rumors.

Whatever the truth of the matter, all cannot be well in the country that is still almost hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. North Korea is one of the few remaining redoubts of the cult of personality that held most communist nations in an iron grip during Stalin's day and well beyond. And what's more, Kim Il Sung has been trying to ensure that he will be succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il.

There have been persistent reports of opposition to this idea of a hereditary succession, particularly within the armed forces. Kim Jong Il, officially known as ``Beloved Leader'' (his father is ``Great Beloved Leader''), is said to be a megalomaniac who lacks his father's balance of autocracy and prudence.

What started the flow of speculation yesterday may have been a North Korean general, opposed to Kim Jong Il, either attempting a coup or sparking disinformation about an assassination plot that was intended to reach the Western press via Japan, some observers here say.

North Korea's personality cult has to be seen to be believed. This writer was in Peking during a visit by Kim Il Sung a few years ago. Chinese security personnel had arranged for groups of welcomers to be placed in orderly clumps. But when Kim's train pulled in, a surge of North Koreans almost knocked security personnel off their feet. Shouts of ``mansei, mansei'' (``10,000 years'') reverberated as the North Koreans, some with tears streaming down their cheeks, thronged their leader.

But Kim Il Sung survived all these years not merely because of a smothering semireligious cult of personality. He has cleverly manipulated forces within his country, ruthlessly suppressing any sign of opposition, actual or potential. He has maneuvered just as adroitly between China and the Soviet Union, being courted by both, but being in the pocket of neither. He has given Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk asylum, a move that cannot have pleased Vietnam, against which Prince Sihanouk leads the Cambodian resistance. Coolness between Vietnam and North Korea may account for the fact that, as of press time, Hanoi was the only communist capital that chose to imply that Kim had been assassinated.

Kim Il Sung's naming of his son as successor, however, cannot have sat well with some of his comrades-in-arms, who struggled with him for the establishment of a communist Korea in the days when the Japanese ruled Korea and Manchuria. Kim Jong Il lacks both his father's imposing presence and experience in dealing with domestic groups, Peking, and Moscow. He is said to fancy himself as a producer of movies, and friends of North Korea in various capitals have reportedly been treated to a suffocatingly boring three-hour film featuring the younger Kim's supposedly unparalleled exploits.

The contrast between an economically backward North Korea and a vibrant South must also cause some soul-searching among North Korean officials. Whether discontent finally boiled over in an assassination attempt, botched or successful, is still unclear. But enough is known about the atmosphere of this severely restricted regime to give plot rumors a certain plausibility.

At press time Monday, there was no conclusive evidence confirming Kim Il Sung's assassination. The rumors began Sunday with a report from a South Korean newspaper's Tokyo correspondent. Monday morning, a Defense Ministry spokesman here said loudspeakers on the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) had announced Kim's death from gunshot wounds, mournful music was played, and North Korean flags were seen at half-mast Sunday. The UN Command in the DMZ denied hearing any loudspeaker messages.

By Monday morning, flags and broadcasts were reportedly back to normal. But Japan's Kyodo news agency yesterday reported from Vietnam that Kim had been killed. The agency was the only outside source to affirm the story. It quoted ``reliable informed sources'' in Hanoi as saying Vietnam had received the information throught Communist Party ``routes'' from North Korea.

Confirmation that Kim is hale and hearty could come within 12 hours, when Mongolian President Jambyn Batmonh is scheduled to visit Pyongyang. The Soviet Union yesterday said Mr. Batmonh had arrived in Vladivostok en route to North Korea. Soviet sources privately expressed skepticism about Kim's alleged assassination.

Normally, Kim would welcome a state leader in person. If he does, speculation will shift to how the rumors began and who was responsible. If he does not, North Korea will become the focus of world attention. For the interests of four powers - the US, the Soviet Union, China, and Japan - intersect on the Korean Peninsula.

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