Seoul — ''Here in the South, money buys the good life, in North Korea you need power.'' The tall, young pilot, wearing his new South Korean Air Force uniform and a badge denoting the rank of major, spoke calmly. He told, in an exclusive interview with the Monitor, of life in North Korea and what he says is the suppressive system that led him to fly his MIG-19 across a heavily patrolled demilitarized zone to South Korea on Feb. 25.
The then captain in the North Korean Air Force left behind - probably forever - his parents, a brother and three sisters, his career, his homeland.
Nearly three months after his defection, former North Korean airman Lee Ung-Pyong has become South Korea's exhibit No. 1 in a continuing propaganda war against the North.
Lee told the South Korean press that he defected because of the suppressive system in the North, because his father had been ''used by the system'' and unfairly forced to retire from the military, and because colleagues who had been abroad had told him how much better off pilots in other countries were.
Lee talked about life in North Korea and his early impressions of the South. ''My first impression was the difference in the standard of living,'' he said. He added what sounded like a well-rehearsed comment: ''In the North, most of the money is spent on defense.''
No more than 2 to 3 percent of North Koreans own their own houses, and then only in rural areas, he said. Most town dwellers live in high-rise blocks where apartments, he thought, were generally much smaller than in the South. ''The authorities tell you where to live, you can't choose. . . . To live in Pyongyang , you have to be a supporter of Kim Il-Sung; most people there are core members of the party.'' The system appears to have at least one advantage: ''There's no urban congestion,'' he said.
Lee explained that the socialist principle - he never used the term ''communist'' - was that your living standard depended on how much you worked. ''Anyone who works gets 700 grams of corn and rice per day, nonworkers get only 300 grams - a lot of households don't have enough. . . .
''Then to buy a black-and-white television, you must save up 100 kilos of rice and give it back before you pay for the set to help the government stockpile enough for three years in case of war. . . . Ordinary people don't have color TV, that's only for high-ranking officials.'' Lee says radios are more common but fixed to receive only one program. Many houses just have speakers.
Ration coupons are issued for basic clothing and some foodstuffs; luxury and foreign goods are not available, he says. ''Nobody wears jewelry, especially gold; it's not allowed, it's regarded as foreign currency so it belongs to the government.''
Lee's experience of life outside the military, which he joined 11 years ago at the age of 17, was obviously limited. He knew little about shopping or food prices. He said, ''Men do not know such things,'' and, ''I didn't have much experience of social life, I can't tell you much about it.''
Through born and raised in Pyongyang, Lee said he had never been in a taxi and didn't know how to use one. ''Taxis are only for weddings or other special occasions, and cars - mostly imported Mercedes or Toyotas - only for senior government officials.'' He added, ''We use trolley buses. It's a good system. I notice there's a lot of pollution in Seoul.''
Outside the towns, trains are the normal means of transport, ''but you need a permit and a good reason to travel outside your own area and these days you can only visit one place each time.''
Although Lee said there was no official security rating system, he noted that none of his colleagues had relatives who were Christians, Buddhists, political dissidents, or had links with South Korea. High-ranking people were given privileges, he said - access to special sections in hospitals, to special provisions and some foreign publications, longer holidays, and coupons for resorts.
Everyone had 11 years of free schooling, soon it would be 12. In middle school they had to study Russian or English; ideological education was a compulsory subject and ''children take it for granted,'' he said. But only students from ''families of good quality'' got into university.