Whiffs of political dissent have come wafting out of North Korea, widely considered to be the world's most authoritarian and secretive state, giving rise to speculation that the iron grip of dictator Kim Jong-il may have been jarred loose.
The wreckage of North Korea's economy has been fairly well documented. Now, the critical question is whether the deprivations North Koreans have long suffered have led to political rumbles challenging Mr. Kim's harsh rule.
Bradley O. Babson, a former World Bank official who specializes in the North Korean economy, raised the question in a recent article as to whether North Korea might experience "an internal political breakdown that could be triggered by a coup, social unrest, or unforeseen incapacitation of Kim Jong-il's leadership."
The consequences of opposition to Mr. Kim could be several: He could become more determined, if that's possible, not to abandon his nuclear ambitions as demanded by the U.S., China and other powers as he claims that to be a major accomplishment. He could slow moves toward reconciliation with South Korea since that would entail surrendering his power to a more stable government.
And the potential for North Korean miscalculation can never be dismissed: Mr. Kim could launch an attack on South Korea and U.S. forces there out of desperation to rally his subjects by aiming them at an external enemy.
Little about North Korea is ever certain, given the restrictions on information from the Hermit Kingdom. Even so, a picture emerges from occasional travelers to North Korea, defectors, South Korean sympathizers of North Korea, and international organizations that have received aid requests.
The lack of food is basic to fostering dissent. Rations for the armed forces were first cut to 80 percent of normal and recently to 60 percent despite the Kim regime's "Military First" policy, in which priority to the armed forces is everything. Civilians have lost even more.
Pyongyang has recently confirmed the United Nation's World Food Program estimate that North Korea's food shortage comes to 1 million tons. North Korea has reluctantly asked for international aid.
A lack of heat in many places compounded the food shortage this past winter. Uncounted numbers of people have died, especially among the elderly. A particularly grim report said that corpses of the dead have polluted drinking water in some places. Health care has been neglected. In one province, measles has been rampant while scarlet fever has raged in another.
A sign of political distrust: North Korean diplomats abroad have recently been ordered to send home all of their children except one per family. A sign of dissent: Only a few of the children have returned to North Korea as the diplomats have found ways to ignore the order.
Two scholars who specialize in North Korean affairs, Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard, estimate that a million North Koreans have died of starvation in recent years. Resentment against Mr. Kim's regime for this tragedy has been aggravated by favoritism.
"When push came to shove," they wrote last month, "the residents of the capital, Pyongyang, received privileged access, while some provinces were cut off from grain supplies from the state-run public distribution system, and were later denied aid when it began to arrive."
Corruption has evidently gone unchecked. The Congressional Research Service, which writes analytical reports for Congress, asserted that Mr. Kim's regime "is involved in illicit drug production and trafficking, as well as production and trafficking in counterfeit currency, cigarettes and pharmaceuticals."
The CRS estimated that North Korean crime generated $500 million in profit per year, with some estimates running to $1 billion a year. CRS said analysts until now "have suggested that North Korean crime-for-profit activity has been carefully controlled and limited to fill specific foreign exchange shortfalls."
Today, that activity may have become a "runaway train," possibly out of control. Some analysts suggest, the CRS said, that replacing the "crime-related income with legitimate-source income would ignore the need of the current regime to divert funding to slush funds designed to sustain the loyalty of a core of party elite numbering in the tens of thousands."
Sometimes little things illuminate bigger issues. On Feb. 16, North Koreans had a national holiday to mark Kim Jong-il's birthday. In the past, the regime has given all of the children sweets that were otherwise all too rare.
This year, the sweets were not only reduced in size but the parents had to pay for them, with the poor missing out.
Richard Halloran is a freelance writer based in Honolulu.