BRUSSELS — Recent events in North Korea have been interpreted in various ways and, generally, the wish has been father to the thought. The truth is difficult to discern, but indications are that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has placed himself firmly behind a reform program that may finally bring the country in from the cold. The fact that Pyongyang is considering applying for observer status at the World Trade Organization supports this contention.

Monitoring North Korea, one of the world’s least transparent regimes, is difficult. For example, no Party Congress has convened since 1980, and the last official plenary meeting of the Central Committee took place in 1993 with not a single new member co-opted since. Thus it is necessary to rely on rumors in the international media based on unnamed sources. Such information normally has a kernel of truth that can be extracted.

In 2004, there were suggestions that Kim’s power was being challenged. In April, Jang Song Thaek, Kim’s brother-in-law and the second-highest official in the North Korean power hierarchy, was reported to have been removed from his post. In May, there were reports in South Korea that the Ryong Chon explosion could have been an assassination attempt on Kim’s life. Accompanying this account was the rumored arrest of 10 young North Korean pro-Chinese technocrats.

Rumors of a power struggle over the succession to Kim surfaced again in September following the death of his wife. Speculation on fractures within the regime heightened in recent months when Kim disappeared from view. Rumors of Kim’s deteriorating health, the spread of anti-Kim protest posters and the removal of his portrait from some public places followed. All of this fed a frenzy of media speculation that North Korea was in danger of imminent collapse.

A Dec. 8 article in the Joongang daily newspaper ( www.joins.com ) titled “North’s political base gets a makeover” reported the first major restructuring and reshuffling of the Korean Workers Party since 1994. The shakeup was triggered by the purge mentioned above of Jang and his close associates. It claimed that Kim had eliminated three of the 22 bureaus of the secretariat of the Party’s Central Control Committee, namely military affairs, economic policy and agricultural affairs, and that 40 percent of the secretariat had been reassigned for the purpose of ending the party’s meddling in military policy and of freeing the Cabinet to push ahead with economic reforms begun in July 2002.

The restructuring of the party, although officially denied, followed by the removal of Jang and his associates clearly signifies the emergence, for the first time in decades, of dissension within the leadership. But it is hardly surprising amid the radical reforms currently being carried out within the industrial and agricultural sectors alongside moves to a market economy.

This suspicion is backed by a Sept. 23 report of North Korea’s Central Broadcast Agency, which came out in support of the “party’s monolithic leadership system,” contending that “the party cannot maintain its existence by permitting factions.” This was almost certainly Jang’s group trying to use the party as a vehicle to halt the reform process. After all, Jang was the second most powerful man in the party and has two brothers who are prominent figures in the military. Jang had clashed with Pak Pong Ju, the prime minister and Cabinet head in charge of economic reform measures.

It was then that Jang was purged and the party disciplined and restructured. The party makeover and the dismissal of Jang are linked to the leadership succession issue and have parallels to events in the late 1970s when then-leader Kim Il Sung carried out a major reshuffle secretly to prepare his son, Kim Jong Il, as his successor. This included the removal of Kim Young Ju, Kim Jong Il’s brother and No. 2 at the time.

Kim Young Ju, initially thought to be Kim Il Sung’s choice for succession, had built up a following, but suddenly disappeared from the political scene in 1976 only to reappear in 1993 when he returned to the Party Central Committee.

Now that Kim Jong Il is turning 63, succession is again becoming an issue. A high-level defector, Hwang Jang Yup, claimed two years ago that Jang was likely to be named as Kim’s successor (Joongang Daily News, July 2, 2002). However, Jang’s current demotion may signal that Kim has made a different choice, driven partly by his commitment to the reform agenda.

Removal of potential rivals and opponents is the start of the succession process. In such a context, the removal of Kim’s portrait may signal the regime’s early moves to engineer a gradual leadership transition blessed by the posthumous support for Kim Il Sung.

One of the dilemmas that the North Korean regime is facing is how to square economic changes and the “military-first — Songun” politics with the unbending ideological convictions of the party. The changes now mean that military matters will be dealt with by the National Defense Committee claimed by Kim Jong Il himself, while economic and agricultural matters will be handled by the Cabinet without party interference and obstruction. If it works it will maintain Kim’s firm grip and give more freedom for reform by the Cabinet.

This view is reinforced by the new year’s joint editorial (Rodong Sinmun, Jan. 1, and KCNA, Jan. 2), in which Kim emphasized improvement in the agricultural and economic sectors by “enhancing the function and role of the Cabinet as an organizer and performer of the economic work.” South Korean experts take a similar view, seeing the reshuffle as a means of consolidating economic management under Premier Pak, a champion of economic reform.

Security and the economy are North Korea’s top two priorities and Kim seems firmly behind the economic reform process. For those who favor a changing regime rather than regime change, the message is clear. The North would also like to see the European Union join the six-party talks.

The EU will be rethinking its engagement policy with the North over the next few months. The EU can take a lead here in helping to ease North Korea into the international community rather than drive it into a corner.

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