Fear of attack builds on streets of Pyongyang

The diet of the residents of Pyongyang is short on rice and meat. But there's never a dearth of patriotic war music - on the radio, television, and from loudspeakers in the subways and streets.

"Little Tank Rushes Forward," anyone?

Nowadays, the morning commute in North Korea's frigid capital also includes a duck-and-cover dress rehearsal for the apocalypse.

At 10 a.m., a siren wails, and hundreds of workers in drab coats run across Kim Il Sung Square, scrambling into cavernous subway platforms 300 feet underground.

North Korea's self image - reinforced by such drills, military posters everywhere, and flickering lights, is of a fortress being starved into submission. The recent American cuts in oil shipments, and a shortfall of international aid only serve to confirm it.

Even at the General Hospital of Koryo Medicine in Pyongyang the doctors are preparing to fight America, not malnutrition.

"If Kim Jong Il calls us, I'll leave the hospital and fight in the army," says Hyon Chol, the hospital's deputy director. "A lack of food and energy does not really have an effect on our people's health," he insists.

"We want help, but we are not going to beg for peace."

This is one of the coldest winters in recent times, with the Taedong River freezing over amid temperatures as low as -6 F. The electricity shortage is apparent in classrooms where students wear coats and gloves; in apartment blocks where all elevators are out of action; and in dimly lit museums and universities.

"Please let the world know of the needs of our country," says Yun Su-chang, head of the Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee. "Some countries, such as the United States, are trying to link food with politics. That is a flagrant violation of humanitarian principles.

In a defiantly proud country, the statement is a rare public plea by the top official for disaster prevention. That it came through the media - rather than quietly through relief workers - underscores the desperate concern of the North Korean government.

Formerly one of only two industrialized nations in Asia, North Korea has steadily regressed as natural disasters, sanctions, and calamitous policy decisions have deprived it of energy, both calories and kilowatts.

Poverty is apparent even in Pyongyang, where electricity is in such short supply that the government has closed the Children's Palace - one of the centerpieces of national culture - because it cannot heat the building.

The deprivation gets worse, further from the capital. On the road to Shinchon, an hour's drive south, cars are scarce but an endless stream of farmers, soldiers, and children walk along the rice paddies. Only one tractor is visible in one of the most important agricultural regions of North Korea. Large, open-backed trucks pass by, overflowing with people.

Power has ebbed away faster in recent months, under the nuclear crisis. America - usually North Korea's biggest donor - has not offered a single grain of rice in four months since revealing evidence of an enriched uranium program. Japan has given nothing for more than a year. And European governments - which continue to supply maize - are increasingly having trouble justifying aid to a country that withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Food rations have been cut as United Nations appeals for donations have passed unheard in Washington and Tokyo. Government officials say schoolchildren now get just 300 grams of food a day, down from 500 grams. The situation is not yet as bad as the famine of the late 1990s, but World Food Program stocks are due to run out within weeks.

"We would like full cooperation from the outside world but not if it is being used for political purposes," says Ri Pyong-gap, a foreign ministry spokesman. "We don't worry even if we don't get food. We have been through an arduous march once and we can do it again."

Tension reached a new pitch late last week when the US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, labeled the north a terrorist regime, raising fears that this country will be next after Iraq in Washington's war on terror. Reports claim that the US aircraft carrier Kittyhawk has sailed into a "strike position" off the country's east coast.

North Korea restarted full operations last week at Yongbyon nuclear plant, where Washington believes a five-megawatt reactor is being used to produce plutonium for warheads. The plant was last operating during standoff in 1994, when the Pentagon drew up plans to strike the reactor. Pyongyang warned last week that an attack on Yongbyon would spark "all-out war" - the latest in a long tirade of threats by the world's most militarized nation with an army of 1.1 million soldiers.

A siege mentality is undoubtedly useful for North Korean leaders who would otherwise have to answer difficult questions about the country's shattered economy.

Under Kim Jong Il's "military first" policy, everything is subordinate to national defense. The city is filled with military posters, and each morning its residents wake to the sound of martial music. Primary schoolchildren are taught martial songs such as Little Tank Rushes Forward.

The mood is far more hostile than just nine months ago, when Pyongyang was in festive spirits to celebrate the anniversary of its founder's birth amid a warming of relations between the north and south of this divided peninsula. Now mobile phones are confiscated at the airport. Cars are stopped by soldiers every few hundred yards for ID checks.

Kim Jong Il may be playing a game of nuclear bluff to win economic concessions and political revival, but the people are deadly serious about the risks they take. North Korea knows it can never win a war, but it will never surrender.

"The United States aggressors will never diminish the spirit of our country. We are ready to sacrifice ourselves for the great leader Kim Jong Il," says Kim Mi-yong, a worker at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. It's a popular refrain, though under such strict media controls it is hard to be sure that everyone thinks the same way.

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