Northern Exposure

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The teenager looks at least three years younger than his 17 years. His eyes dart around or lock on his shoe tops when he talks. But when you take him to a neighborhood restaurant and put a steaming plate of dumplings in front of him, he suddenly perks up and starts to look you in the eye. Walking for a day from his village in North Korea, he crossed the Tumen River into China in early October, hoping to earn some money to buy food for his parents. He doesn't want you to use his name or take his picture. If a copy of this magazine were to fall into the hands of North Korean authorities, "they'll really beat me up," he says. Jae Young—a pseudonym he agrees to—has heard about the economic reforms unveiled by his country's leaders in July. But all that's happened in his village, Jae Young says, is that the price of grain has gone up, leaving his family hungrier than before. He falls silent at the mention of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, the man all North Koreans are taught to revere as a demigod. Jae Young has nothing to say on that topic except "There is nothing to eat."

Without knowing it, the stunted, starving young man speaks for a nation that is beginning to show the stress cracks of a bankrupt leadership. On Oct. 4, North Korea acknowledged that it was secretly trying to build nuclear weapons. The shocking admission, to senior U.S. diplomat James Kelly, was not made as a threat or a taunt. It was as much as anything else the distressed cry of a beleaguered nation running out of options.

In fact, North Korea's nuclear confessions were among a stream of pronouncements issued from Pyongyang over the past few months, each one more surprising than the last. The country is scrambling to prop up its collapsed command economy with a dose of capitalism. The centerpiece of the reform efforts—a Chinese-style special economic zone in the northwestern town of Sinuiju—will probably never get off the ground, according to businessmen across the river in the Chinese city of Dandong. For one thing, the Chinese entrepreneur appointed to run it has been arrested by the mainland for unspecified wrongdoings. For another, the nuclear disclosure has put North Korea in U.S. President George W. Bush's gunsight. Who would invest there now?

To some observers, the reform efforts, however botched, are an indication that North Korea is opening up. Others see the moves as the first visible spasms of a dying regime. It's difficult to know what goes on inside this black box of a nation, where people can be dragged off to prison for making the slightest criticism of the Dear Leader. But if you talk to enough people—defectors in South Korea, border jumpers in China and aid workers—it's possible to catch a glimpse of life on the inside. And there are signs, such as rumors of failed coups, that Kim's position is not secure. An aid worker who has worked in Pyongyang for several years says the country reminds him of East Berlin just before the fall of the Wall. There are beggars in the streets and people are dying unnecessarily for lack of medicine, he says, while the regime tinkers with reforms that have come far too late. Average citizens still look cowed, but lower-level officials show increasing frustration with Pyongyang. "It looks explosive," he says. "The cracks in the system are getting bigger."


Instead of improving things, reforms have made life more harsh, driving up food prices while eroding spending power. The regime's perennial failure to feed its people is undermining Kim's authority. Discontent has been growing steadily for years, and government propaganda is losing its ability to allay dissatisfaction. Information is seeping into the country through capillaries censors can't plug: aid workers and returning North Koreans are entering the North with stories of China's boomtowns and even bootleg Hollywood movies. Titanic was a big hit in Pyongyang. Kim's formidable security apparatus still ruthlessly sets upon anyone foolhardy enough to complain in public. But even at the top of the leadership chain, "there is growing instability because the Dear Leader has fewer goodies to pass around to keep the élite happy," says Choi Jin Wook, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Reunification in Seoul. "The regime is at a very critical point. There is a good chance we could see a coup attempt from within the leadership."

Other North Korea watchers say not enough is known of the workings of the ultrasecretive North Korean military to suggest that Kim might be toppled. But the possibility that the regime is unraveling was likely to have been a consideration when the top leaders from South Korea, Japan and the U.S. met to discuss the nuclear issue on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Mexico last weekend. Washington made it clear that Pyongyang must abandon its nuclear arms program, or face the consequences. But Bush kept the rhetoric low-key, stressing he would use tough diplomacy and not cruise missiles to pressure Pyongyang. North Korea, for its part, demanded on Friday a "nonaggression" pact with the U.S. as a prerequisite to negotiations. Only then would it consider scrapping its nuke development.

Pyongyang's eagerness to strike a deal smacks of even more desperation: it badly needs aid from Japan and South Korea to finance its reform efforts, which turn Stalinist orthodoxy on its ear. Pyongyang said it would raise everybody's salaries and start charging more for food and other commodities. Factories would have to sink or swim on their own. North Korean officials called it "price adjustment measures." But it looked like Kim had finally decided to jettison his failed command-economy model, and introduce market reforms like neighbor China did 20 years ago. Sweeping reform is wrenching even in a robust, modern economy. In an already bereft system headed by cadres with only the barest idea of how a market economy works, it is like jumping on a bus without knowing its destination. "The bus has left the station," says Marcus Noland, an expert on the North Korean economy at the Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C. And the North's leaders "don't know if they can keep it on the road or if they'll drive it into the ditch."

The ride was already too bumpy for Choi (a pseudonym), who abandoned North Korea for China a month ago. She wasn't starving, yet. But she was tired of "always having to worry about where the next meal was coming from." With carefully stenciled eyebrows, red lipstick and a red jacket, she is petite and pretty but nervous as she tells her story to a Westerner—the first she has ever met. Speaking near the safe house where she is hiding from Chinese police and North Korean agents, she says the government increased salaries in her hometown north of Pyongyang. After that, however, nobody was paid except the teachers, and they have only been paid once since the raises were announced in July. Yet prices went up sharply. The government tried to shut down the town's black market but traders and customers found places to deal in secret. The authorities later allowed trading in rice but tried to cap the price at 50 won (33¢) a kilo, posting guards to check transactions. When traders refused to sell at that price, the authorities relented. Now the black market is open again but rice is 86¢ and rising. "Things have got worse," says Choi. "This was a reform for the rich."

The rich live in Pyongyang, an oasis of relative luxury where only Party members and the most loyal citizens have the right to reside. Checkpoints keep the masses out of this stately city of grandiose monuments, soaring apartment blocks and broad, leafy avenues. Much of the traffic consists of army vehicles and chauffeur-driven Mercedes, a perk for top party officials. The city's 2 million residents get the best food, and a regular flow of trucks hauls in goods from China—electric generators, blankets and boxes full of everything from bananas and oranges to wine and cigarettes. While meat and even white rice are rare for millions of North Koreans, restaurants and outdoor eateries in the capital offer grilled beef, fresh fruit and other treats to anybody with enough U.S. dollars to pay. The supply of electricity is unreliable, but it's far better than in places like Sinuiju, which are unlit at night.


Pyongyang isn't quite a worker's paradise, but for people like Li (a pseudonym), life there can be quite pleasant. Fashionably dressed and carefully coiffed, she is the kind of hip twentysomething single you might see on the streets of Seoul. She's even had her eyelids tucked Western-style, a popular form of cosmetic surgery in the capital. She uses eye shadow from South Korea, watches Western and South Korean movies on her VCD player and enjoys dining out, although she complains that the restaurants charge expensive prices in dollars these days. Speaking with a foreigner over dinner in China where she spends part of her time, she complains constantly about the quality of the food even as she's wolfing it down. Asked if she knows how people live in the North's provinces, she says she avoids leaving Pyongyang when in her home country. "I hate spending money where it is so boring," says Li. "There is no culture there. They eat and sleep. They live like pigs."

But Li's friend, who is wearing a vinyl windbreaker—a trendy item in Pyongyang right now—says many citizens, even those living in the capital, face hardship. Top Party and military officials still get government handouts of meat and eggs and other rations. Most people, however, stopped receiving these perks 20 years ago, she says. The average worker's wages went up from 66¢ to $11 a month recently, but now everything from utilities to kindergarten fees is no longer free. Prices for food and household goods are 30 times higher than before the reforms. "People feel nervous and off-balance," she says. "Life is more difficult."

North Korea has always been a class-conscious society. In the late 1960s, the government categorized all individuals by their songbun (background) and graded them according to their political reliability, says Helen-Louise Hunter, a former North Korea analyst for the cia. About a third of the population were considered loyal communists—with a little work they could land plum jobs reserved for the élite. Another third or so were considered fairly reliable and could move up in society with a little luck. The bottom third—the deposed, prerevolution privileged class and their descendants—were barred from university and the army, and were usually assigned to collective farms or factories. Party apparatchiks even had an informal terminology for their communist-style apartheid. The die-hard believers were "tomatoes": red to the core. Those in the broad middle class were "apples": red on the outside but in need of a little ideological buffing. People in the pariah class were called "grapes": no red in them at all.

While color coding was abandoned in the 1980s, songbun still rules. When a newborn is registered, files on his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are attached to his record, according to a North Korean doctor now living in Seoul. But there are fewer tomatoes and a lot more apples and grapes these days, say North Korea watchers and defectors in Seoul with contacts in the North. Kim has a different kind of family background problem. He comes from the right one, of course. But he has never commanded as much respect as his father, Kim II Sung, did. The Great Leader fought the Japanese during the colonial period, founded North Korea with Soviet help, and is still the official President even though he died in 1994. His son merely inherited the top position. He consolidated his hold on power by currying favor with the military and promoting scores of officers loyal to him.

But to run a dictatorship you need to be able to keep your people ignorant—blissfully so. These days, it isn't just the élite in Pyongyang that has access to the outside world. Chinese Koreans are bringing in cell phones and leaving them with North Korean relatives living near enough to China to piggyback their calls on the mainland cellular network. North Koreans are watching South Korean TV in China, then going back into the country and spreading the word about life on the outside. The regime's propaganda machine used to claim that South Koreans were beggars living under the oppressive heel of capitalists and American imperialists. These days, North Koreans know South Koreans and Chinese are rich. Many dream of escaping to those countries, says Yu Jong San, a defector who arrived in Seoul earlier this year. "Seventy percent of North Koreans know what is going on outside (their) country. They aren't brainwashed robots anymore."

Defector Choi says even an average person can buy goods smuggled in from the South and Japan, at least if they act before merchandise sells out. She doesn't have a VCD player, but she watches banned Western movies at the house of a family friend who is among the 1 in 70 households with such equipment. She can't understand the English dialogue, but a university student is usually around to translate. Choi admits to being moved by what she sees. "All human beings feel the same way," she says. "When we see people enjoying a high standard of living, of course we want to live like them too."


Most people are too focused on whether they can afford their next meal to worry much about life on the outside. Inside the country, faith in the Dear Leader is eroding. Traveling on business inside North Korea earlier this year, a Chinese human rights activist stayed with the family of a North Korean she had met in China. She says they were destitute, the children had no shoes and were clothed in rags. The family had no blankets and the concrete floor of the building they occupied had no mats—the family had sold everything to buy food. The activist bought them two kilos of rice and two pairs of shoes. The family told her they didn't believe the Party line that North Koreans are doing well. "What is the point of just saying we are well-off," they said, "when people are so hungry. We don't need Kim Jong Il."

None of this means revolt is imminent. Any such uprising would most likely be crushed, says Lim Young Sun, head of research at the Commission to Help North Korean Refugees, a private aid group based in Seoul. Protests against the regime are dealt with severely. A pervasive security apparatus is supplemented with informants in every town and village. North Koreans know that troublemakers disappear into the gulag, usually with their families. An example of one testament to the dangers of speaking out: an estimated 200,000 political prisoners languish in the country's prisons, according to human-rights experts. Despite the extreme risks, however, tentative public protests do occur. A former state security agent in northeastern Hamgyong province before he defected in 1998 says that every six months or so his office would find antigovernment leaflets left on the streets. Antigovernment graffiti and posters appear periodically.

Change would have to come from the élite, who cling to Kim Jong Il for their own survival. There has been discontent in the military for years according to Lim. He was a young army officer in the early 1990s when he fell in with an underground group of 30 to 40 military men and Party members opposed to Kim Jong Il. He says the group's activities consisted mainly of getting drunk and shouting brave epithets such as "Let's kill Kim Jong Il." But in 1991, the Communist Party began talking about starting a war against South Korea and the U.S. The underground group, who called themselves "The Supreme Council of National Salvation," decided to distribute antigovernment leaflets on the day when they believed Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were going to visit their ancestors' graves, a key date in the Korean calendar.

They came into possession of a Chinese typewriter. But they learned from a friend in a printer's shop that every machine had slightly different type so that it could be identified by government security agents. The group innovated, cutting characters out of rubber bicycle-tire inner tubes to make a primitive typesetting device. Then they mimeographed hundreds of leaflets reading: "The Supreme Council of National Salvation demands the execution of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. We appeal to soldiers of the People's Army and the people to join our struggle." On Sept. 23, Lim went to Pyongyang station and boarded the train for Musan near the Chinese border. He tossed leaflets out of the window. When the train stopped in one town, he bribed a truck driver to ferry him around while he threw leaflets into the street.

That quixotic uprising caused a sensation in the upper levels of the regime, according to Lim. But most of the conspirators were arrested. (Lim managed to escape to China and, later, to a sanctuary in South Korea.) Pyongyang also crushed two other known coup attempts against Kim Jong Il in the 1990s, according to a former North Korean border guard whose father was a senior military official.

North Korea watchers say rebellion—whether it is a mass revolt or a surgical strike from inside the Party or military—can only occur if people are prepared to die for it. They say it is impossible to predict when or if North Koreans will achieve the mix of desperation and bravery necessary for combustion, the same fusion that brought down other dysfunctional communist regimes more than a decade ago.

But one cannot talk to Jae Young, the 17-year-old border jumper, without wondering whether he is the explosive type. In the dumpling shop, he is discussing his village again. He remembers what it was like during the famine in 1996. He talks about the three executions he has witnessed. Villagers caught stealing corn were led up into the mountains and given a last meal of white rice and booze—all they could eat and drink. Then the soldiers shot them. Still, Jae Young won't stay in China. He misses his parents and he's frightened that border guards will murder them if they, too, try to cross the river. For now, his dream is to get enough money to take his parents to the black market. "I'll buy them some corn and corn soup so we won't be hungry," he says. Not white rice, he adds—that is too expensive. Maybe one day, when the Dear Leader's regime has finally become a distant, painful memory, he'll be able to dream bigger than of a bowl of soup.