SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korea's communist regime will be toppled in ``several years'' by its most trusted institution _ the military _ the highest-ranking North Korean defector predicted Wednesday.

The 1.1 million-strong North Korean armed forces, the world's fifth largest, form the backbone of the North's Stalinist rule in the midst of a deepening economic crisis.

Following two successive years of devastating floods, North Korea is relying on international aid to feed its 22 million people.

``It is inevitable that the military will rise up,'' Hwang Jang Yop said in a speech to a presidential advisory group.

Hwang, 74, a former member of North Korea's top policy-making body, defected to Seoul's embassy in Beijing earlier this year, creating an international diplomatic furor between North Korea, China and Beijing. After several months, and a side trip to the Philippines, he was allowed to reach Seoul in April.

Hwang based his prediction on the crumbling of North Korea's vast military supply industries and sagging military morale.

``More than half the workers at military supply plants are sitting idle,'' Hwang said. ``Even elite troops are stealing goods. It is easy to predict what the other, less-privileged soldiers will do.''

North Korea's is one of the world's most closed countries, and most accounts by defectors cannot be independently confirmed.

Outside observers have said the North's ill-fed public has become increasingly discontent with the government. But Hwang said those people cannot organize an effective opposition in the tightly controlled society.