North Korea's bizarre actions during the past few months, culminating in the sinking of a South Korean warship in late March, might indicate that Kim Jong-il is losing his grip on power, according to respondents to our web poll last week.
Our readers are not alone in questioning the regime's stability. Intelligence analysts have reported Kim's death on a couple of occasions since 2003 and he has variously been reported as suffering from pancreatic cancer, diabetes, several strokes and a brain haemorrhage. Regardless of whether the tiny despot is dead, dying or dancing a waltz, some analysts are now saying that the sinking of the Cheonan and the chaotic revaluation of the currency last year could be signs of a power struggle within North Korea's political and military establishments.
Tensions reached a new high last week after North Korean officials responded angrily to an international investigation into the sinking of the warship. But, after some initial selling, investors have stayed largely calm about the situation and Moody's yesterday affirmed its A1 rating on South Korea.
"Overall, recent shocks -- including the sinking and the deaths of 46 South Korean sailors near the maritime border between both countries -- have had no adverse effects for South Korea on the issues of debt affordability or finance-ability," said Tom Byrne, a senior vice-president at Moody's. "Moreover, countries like South Korea, which have good fundamentals, will continue to look relatively attractive in global markets."
The outlook for North Korea is far harder to predict. China keeps the regime afloat with supplies of food and energy, which makes it an invaluable ally for Western powers eager to solve the crisis peacefully. However, if the regime is really falling apart, even China might be powerless to bring peace.
Close to half of the 130 respondents to our poll, 48%, said that Kim Jong-il was losing his grip on power, while 33% guessed he was not and 19% said they didn't know.
Photo provided by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency and distributed via AFP.