North Korean Family Describes The Impoverished State It Fled

ESCAPING `THE 19TH CENTURY'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THIS past March, as the rest of the world continued mulling over what to do in the wake of the cold war's demise, one North Korean family plotted how to defect from a Communist state run by a dictator who knew Joseph Stalin.

They say they had to choose between dying of starvation and risking death in the attempt to flee their country.

On the night of March 19, the five family members gathered at the village of Hyaesan on the border of North Korea and China. Then they made their way to the Yalu River, wrapped each other in white sheets to blend in with the snow, and walked across the frozen water into China.

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When Yo Man Chol, his wife Lee Ok Keum, and their three children eventually arrived in Seoul in early May, they became minor celebrities in the propaganda struggle that still grips the Korean Peninsula. But in an interview last week the parents did not seem like political tools, despite the presence of an escort from the South Korean government.

Mrs. Lee, a middle-aged woman with a delicately wrinkled face and hands toughened by work, has an air of resignation and sadness, as if the difficulties of the family's passage have by no means ended. Her husband, whose creases and calluses are coarser, seems like a man proud to have survived when survival was uncertain.

Their story and observations, of course, are impossible to confirm. Defectors are handled by South Korean intelligence and may or may not be coached on what to say in public. North Korea is for the most part a closed state, increasingly so amid the international standoff over the country's alleged nuclear weapons program. But the pace of defections has picked up - at least 21 northerners have been granted asylum in the South this year, more than in all of 1993 - and other reports tend to corroborate the Yo family's account of a deprived society reaching its breaking point.

Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Yo says the North Korean government has halted supplying food in at least five provinces at various points during the past 16 months. Before stopping the supplies altogether, he adds, the government continually decreased the proportion of rice in the rations and increased the proportion of other grains - mainly animal feed.

DUE to an unusually cold growing season in Northeast Asia last year, North Korea reaped the same meager harvests that have forced Japan and South Korea to import rice. But the North's isolation and poverty have apparently prevented it from buying much food abroad.

Yo says his family sold most of their household goods in order to eat. As ``everything disappeared day by day,'' the couple says they decided that they would attempt escape rather than starve.

``Living in North Korea is like living in the 19th century. The quality of everyday goods is at a very low level,'' Mrs. Lee says. Because of limited resources and energy shortages, factories cannot operate.

In the effort to boost the standing of ``Great Leader'' Kim Il Sung, she adds, North Korean officials have repressed and destroyed Korean history and heritage. ``There's no culture at all ... they substitute that with Kim Il Sung worship.... If somebody makes a criticism of the socialist government or makes remarks about Mr. Kim, or his son Kim Jong Il, then he is arrested and his family does not know what happens to him.... Then the rest of the family ... is sent to `political criminals' camp' ... until death.''

Life is especially tough on women, adds Lee, who was once a kindergarten principal. ``Kim Il Sung said he would like to liberate women from household work, but the story is the reverse. Because the standard of living is so low, women have to concentrate mainly on living.... There's no time to focus on other things''

The difference between the South and the North, her husband continues, is the ``difference between sky and ground.''

That is not to say there are no modern-day similarities. In both countries, they note, cars are stopped on the streets. In the North fuel shortages have halted all but a fraction of vehicles, Yo says, adding that even Communist Party officials have to walk.

In Seoul, of course, there is plenty of gasoline. The cars are stopped by the city's horrendous traffic jams.

Their transition gives new meaning to the term culture shock. Lee says she finds everything so ``electrified,'' even in the kitchen. Her husband notes that South Korean intelligence officers have introduced her to the electric rice cooker, a gadget that has been a staple in countless Asian kitchens for decades.

The couple says they do not know what they will do when their period of debriefing is over. For now, they live in an apartment provided by the South Korean government.

Yo says he was an officer in the North Korean security police, until he was fired in 1987 for accepting a bribe. Then he became a truck driver, but fuel shortages left him with little work.

Deprivation was not the only reason the couple decided to flee. ``Because of my dismissal,'' the husband says, ``our children cannot do anything in their future; everything is limited.''

In North Korea, explains his wife, ``People are bound by invisible chains.''

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