Kim Jong Il and his allies in North Korea’s hierarchy could be in their final days of power, according to a prominent Tokyo-based Korea watcher.

Katsumi Sato said Feb. 20 that Kim’s government will lose its grip unless it purges open-door reformists from the leadership ranks. The power elite is now split into two camps — Kim’s group and the reformists, said Sato, who is head of the Modern Korea Institute, a Japanese think tank. Hwang Jang Yop, Sato said, was aligned with the reformists before his recent defection.

Technocrats, the military and even the general public will have doubts in Kim’s leadership unless he manages to remove the reformists, Sato said. “If (he fails in this purge), there will be a massive stampede into the reformist camp,” Sato told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, adding that China and the United States are backing the reformists.

Hwang, a senior North Korean official, has taken refuge in the South Korean mission in Beijing and is seeking political asylum in South Korea. He reportedly told the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that five to seven other high-ranking officials in Pyongyang hope to defect. Whether Kim’s group or its opponents win the power struggle, an extremely unstable situation will result and there are chances of an “implosion,” Sato said.

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