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North Korea's tipping point

What do the sinking of a ship, stalled talks and Kim Jong Il's secretive son add up to? Trouble.

north korean soldier and south korean soldier
A North Korean soldier (far left) and a South Korean soldier (right) stand opposite to each other at the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone separating two Koreas on April 28, 2010. (Yonhap/AFP/Getty Images)

PANMUNJOM, Korea — As dawn broke on June 25, 1950, almost a quarter of a million North Korean soldiers swept across the border into South Korea, five years after the peninsula had been roughly sliced in two by victorious Soviet and United States forces at the end of World War II.

Six decades after the two Koreas settled on an armistice, 2 million troops — 1.2 million of them in North Korea — remain locked in an uneasy standoff either side of a 160-mile-long military demarcation line better known as the demilitarized zone.

Today, the prospects for detente, let alone of moves towards unification, look dimmer than ever.

The North abruptly canceled a meeting scheduled for today with the U.S.-led United Nations Command to discuss the March sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan. According to reports, the North has asked to reschedule for Thursday.

Last Friday, the U.N. Security Council condemned the sinking of the Cheonan, apparently by a North Korean torpedo, although it stopped short of blaming the regime directly.

Talks on the North’s nuclear weapons program have stuttered to a halt; bilateral ties have sunk to their lowest level in years.

To add to the uncertainty, the North Korean economy is in trouble — again — as U.N. sanctions over its nuclear tests and the cutting of trade ties by the South risk plunging the already impoverished nation into a famine similar to the one that killed as many as 2 million people between 1995-97.

And the rest of the world is immersed in the political parlor game of forecasting what the secretive, and increasingly unpredictable, communist state will look like after its ailing Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, makes way for his youngest son.

The next few days will tell us which North Korea emerges from the fallout from the Cheonan tragedy, in which 46 sailors died: a chastened state ready to talk; or a more belligerent version that repeats recent threats to drown its enemies in a “sea of fire.”

It is not surprising, then, that when tourists to Panmunjom — the U.N.-administered “truce village” on the Korean border — gaze through binoculars northwards across the demilitarized zone, it isn’t only the occasional blankets of mist that obscure their view.

What little is known about the machinations of the world’s most secretive state comes from South Korean government officials, the animated pronouncements of the North’s official news agency, defectors and small-time surveillance operations that double up as purveyors of anti-North Korean propaganda.

Taken together, their nuggets of information add up to a country on the brink of political and economic crisis.

The South Korean central bank recently reported that the North’s economy shrank by almost 1 percent in 2009, partly as a result of tighter U.N. sanctions.

The trend is expected to continue this year, according to the Korea Development Institute, now that trade with the South has collapsed in the wake of the Cheonan sinking, potentially costing the communist state hundreds of millions of dollars.

“North Korea’s economy could be hurled into a very precarious situation,” the institute said in a new report.