North Korea: A Nation in the Dark

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An illuminated monument to Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea

Lee Mi Young crossed the Tumen River from North Korea into China a month ago. Now she is hiding in a safe house in China, getting help from a Chinese-Korean missionary, and hoping to start a new life. She is terrified to be talking to the first foreigner she has ever seen, more so because she is painting a negative picture of her country. She could be executed in North Korea for this conversation (Lee Mi Young is a pseudonym).

In her mid-30s, with pretty, bright brown eyes and carefully stenciled eyebrows, Lee says she left North Korea because she was tired of never having quite enough to eat. Things are better than they were during the famine of the mid-'90s, but they have begun to deteriorate since July when North Korea announced a series of economic reforms that many observers said signaled the start of a serious effort to fix the country's collapsed command economy. The government raised the salaries of workers such as miners and teachers, increased the cost of state rations such as rice and allowed the North Korean won to fall to about 150 to the dollar, much closer to its real black-market value than the 2.5 won to the dollar at which it had previously been pegged.

Lee says that in her hometown north of Pyongyang (she prefers we don't name it) the price of grain in the black market has risen, but people can't afford to buy it: Although salaries have been raised, the government has only actually paid them once since July. People need to supplement meager government rations with rice bought at exorbitant prices on the black market. "This was a reform for the rich," says Lee. "Things are worse than before."

Kim Jung Il is still fully in control of the country, analysts say. There are periodic reports of small signs of dissent — anti-government leaflets and graffiti, for example. Some defectors say family members will complain among themselves and possibly with friends. But North Korean defectors say that everyone is aware that anybody caught protesting publicly will be sent to a harsh prison camp, where they will be joined by members of their family. Lee, the young woman who fled last month, says she saw an old lady standing in line waiting for rations in August who suddenly said: "It is so difficult to live here. I can't stand this." Almost immediately, a man came up, tapped her on the shoulder and led her away. Other members of her family later disappeared without explanation.

What has changed in the past few years is the amount of knowledge about the outside world flowing into the country. Hundreds of aid workers have been in and out of the country in recent years, bringing with them new ideas and information. Thousands of North Koreans have crossed across the Tumen River into China attempting to flee or simply looking for food. Many come back not only with food, but also bearing tales of the wonders of China's booming cities and stores brimming with goods. According to one defector, Chinese-Koreans are bringing cell phones into North Korea, using them along the border and even leaving them behind for relatives to use — in a country where ordinary people don't have landline phones in their homes.

For impoverished North Koreans, China's flashy modern cities seem like paradise and many dream of going there. There is much more knowledge about South Korea as well. North Korean propaganda for years portrayed the South as a land of beggars oppressed by a rich elite. Many average North Koreans now know that isn't true, according to defectors. One reason: North Korean sailors, traders and workers who have been to places like Cuba and Libya come back with video tapes of American action movies. These are secretly circulated, with eager audiences gathering at the house of the very rare family rich enough to have a VCR player, sometimes with an English-speaker on hand to translate the dialogue. A record 600 North Korea defectors arrived in Seoul last year — this year's figure could top 1,000.

Some analysts argue the clash in the West Sea on June 29 (in which North Korea patrol boats fired on South Korea naval vessels, killing five sailors) was the work of disgruntled military leaders trying to warn Kim Jong Il to keep a lid on change. The conventional wisdom has always been that North Korea is afraid to open the door a crack because the system could unravel so quickly. Some defectors and aid workers report that there is a sense of instability and uncertainty in the country right now. Rather than the start of reform, we may be seeing a country starting to unravel already.

When I visited Pyongyang in August, it looked better than it had even six months earlier. There were open-air restaurants offering grilled meat — just like in Seoul — and people looked healthy and even vibrant. But the capital has always been an oasis reserved for party members and North Koreans loyal to the regime. Aid workers and diplomats say smaller cities lack regular electricity and people still can't get enough to eat. They probably aren't starving but malnutrition remains widespread.

North Koreans who live in the countryside may be marginally better-off than their urban cousins, because they are able forage for wild plants in the mountains and are allowed to grow vegetables on small private plots. Life is harsh for city dwellers dependent on the industrial economy. On the road from Pyongyang to the northeast corner of the country, you pass mile after mile of rusting factories — probably less than one third of the country's factories are actually running.

A Korea-American businessman who visited the city of Kaesong recently was shocked to learn it had had no electricity for 10 days. The only electric lights shining at night in Kaesong those illuminating monuments to the late "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung. Many city have electricity at certain times of the day. Foreign reporters who visited Shinuiju last month, for the unveiling of a plan to turn it into a free economic zone designed to lure investors, were struck by the contrast with the neighboring Chinese city of Dandong. Dandong at night is a blaze of lights; across the river, Shinuiju is in near-total darkness. Apartment blocks in Pyongyang are lit at night these days, but there are few lights outdoors — except, of course, those illuminating the gigantic statue of the "Great Leader."

To make a go of "special economic zones" such as Shinuiju, North Korea needs to massive foreign investment to rebuild its electrical grid and other key infrastructure. The country has never been self-sufficient in food and needs an industrial economy to make fertilizer to boost agricultural yield and to finance food imports to make up the shortfall. But the disappearance of foreign subsidies following the collapse of the Soviet Union saw a rapid de-industrialization — until the late 1960s, it had been ahead of South Korea economically. North Korea is now dependent on international food aid and donations of fertilizer, and desperately needs to get on the right side of the U.S. in order to get the loans it desperately needs from the World Bank — loans that the U.S. is now blocking. That has many South Korean analysts suggesting that the reason Pyongyang sudden nuclear confession is precisely that it hopes to put its nuclear weapons program on the table and trade it away for economic gains and security guarantees from Washington.