IN a communist world where rapid change seems to be the order of the day, North Korea is notable for its conservatism and harsh stability. The Kim Il Sung regime in Pyongyang stands out as a Stalinist anachronism compared to those of Gorbachev and several Eastern European leaders who are experimenting on a scale unimaginable a few years ago. Even Deng Xiaoping in the bloodied shadows of Tiananmen Square remains a progressive compared to Kim. Most Western and South Korean analysts see little chance of a ``Gorbachev'' emerging in Pyongyang and assume Kim Il Sungism will remain an entrenched dogma for the foreseeable future. Actually, this view may be far too pessimistic. There are sound reasons to expect a ``Gorby'' in Pyongyang one day.
As revolutionary as Mikhail Gorbachev may appear, he actually is a preserver of the Soviet system. As one Soviet analyst put it, Gorbachev functions concurrently as a Martin Luther and a pope, simultaneously struggling from within to reform the ``church'' he also heads.
Mr. Gorbachev clearly recognizes that the ideology he is sworn to protect is bankrupt and threatens to bring down the state he leads. Consequently, Gorbachev should be interpreted as an innovative conservative willing to experiment with, and adapt, the system he inherited to changing circumstances - not a flaming liberal. He is doing for the Soviet Union in a period of external stress roughly what FDR did to reinvigorate American capitalism in the 1930s when it was threatened.
Similarly, one can visualize that sort of leadership becoming necessary in North Korea as it confronts a truly revolutionary challenge from South Korea, which makes the North Korean revolutionary experience look static and paltry. To date Kimism has been able to shunt aside external comparisons. By marching to a different drummer the Pyongyang regime has sloughed off the most invidious comparisons resulting from the stagnant Democratic People's Republic of Korea's juxtaposition with the robust Republic of Korea.
Kim Il Sung and his son and heir apparent, Kim Jung Il, may well be able to persist in this mode longer than many foreign observers deem possible. North Korea is such a rigidly controlled society, hewing to different norms, that the ``big lie'' technique can remain effective far longer than it would in more open societies.
Sooner or later, however, one must assume that North Korea, too, will have to confront the realities now so harshly imposing themselves on other Marxist-Leninist societies. Pyongyang too eventually will be compelled to deal with global evolutionary forces.
When that day arrives, the person at the helm in Pyongyang probably will be unable to turn his back on Kimism by engaging in a Chinese-style overhaul of North Korean communism.
Engaging in de-Kimification, in a manner analogous to the crude de-Maoification China tried would be far more traumatic to North Korea, because Kimism is, by now, more pervasive than Maoism at its height. Someday North Korean revisionists might reassess Kim Il-sung in ways comparable to China's recent ideologically deft revisionist treatment of Mao's legacy or the Soviet Union's comparable handling of Lenin. There would, however, have to be enormous change in North Korea before it could experience any thorough debunking of the magnitude now aimed at Stalinism in the Soviet Union.
Against that background one can readily visualize Kim Il Sung's successor coping with North Korea's future adjustment problems in a manner very much akin to Mikhail Gorbachev.
This prospective leader, too, would have to shore up his system by innovatively relying on Kim's legacy, but doing so in a way that reconfigures ``Kim Il Sung thought,'' making it more appropriate to the international circumstances North Korea will face in the 1990s and on into the 21st century.
The rhetoric Kim's successors use probably will sound like Kim Il Sung's. But if North Korea is to cope with inevitable change in its region, the next leaders in Pyongyang will be compelled to adapt old words for a new day. As they do so, they will face policy choices ranging from radical experiments to cautious moves.
Given the innate societal conservatism North Korea has shown for decades, the odds favor a cautious approach. This, in turn, means that North Korea's successor generation of leaders is likely to produce a ``Gorbachev'' who will also attempt to conduct a reformation of Kimism from within - significantly changing the substance while continuing to act as the defender of the faith.
Should this occur, it would mean, at long last, real change in North Korea. That prospect would, in turn, mean that conditions on and around the Korean peninsula might finally improve. Consequently, even as Americans and South Koreans correctly continue to be prepared for various worst case post-Kim Il Sung scenarios, they should be watchful, also, for signs of genuine progress in North Korea and ready to be supportive of any ``Gorby'' that regime might produce.