Despite gains, North Koreans disillusioned

Food, fuel, and know-how are flowing into the totalitarian state, but citizens are dispirited.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Mrs. Park is North Korean salt of the earth. Until the 70-year-old was stripped, beaten, and charged with dissent, Park and her family were patriotic, loyal, ordinary. They were true believers in the ruling Kim family's "juche" ideology, which holds that Korea must be separate from all nations and that total obedience is owed to the Kim family. Park's eight kids worshiped Kim Il Sung, the "father of their minds." When Kim died and millions perished in an epic famine, the Parks didn't panic. They wrote a letter to Kim Jong Il, volunteering to farm – something only a pure and loyal family would dare in North Korea.

Yet today Mrs. Park (not her real name) is in South Korea, an escapee. Her family is broken. So are her ideals. She's been captured in China – sent home to the North, made to endure camps, and witness horrific acts. She had gone to China in 2000 only to feed her family. But her world got turned upside down.

The significance of Park's story may be how typical it is. In the past decade many North Korean families have had their state-enforced high ideals shattered, according to refugees and nongovernmental and academic sources working with them. A recent high-level defector from Pyongyang confirms that many elites in the North are now a "skeptical class," according to sources in South Korea's national unification ministry.

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The loss of faith among foot-soldiers in Kim's army of believers, say analysts, is a noteworthy change in an unpredictable regime.

North Korea today faces a paradox: While its material standard of living has been improving, moving from awful to less awful – its morale and its collective beliefs continue to fray. Energy, food, cash, and know-how flow faster into the North, from China and South Korea. But the quality of patriotism, military discipline, and ideological purity – elements that have uniquely bound the North – are shaky, say many sources.

Local authority figures of respect have spent a decade foraging for cash and food, like everyone else. The Park family's story emerges from a land where nearly 500,000 a year died between 1995 and 1999, according to Chuck Downs, a US expert on North Korea, currently with the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

A "feeling of positive emotion" is missing in the North, reports a Seoul-based researcher on the Chinese-North Korean border. "People have stopped seeing each other as people; everything is money.... It used to be that everyone looked up to public officials ... to the Army. Now they are on the take," says a Korean reporter for NKnet, a newsletter in Seoul headed by Han Ki-hong, a leftist who is critical of the North's human rights violations.

"The North is being penetrated in terms of thought, information, and in cultural and commercial products from outside," says Scott Snyder, former head of the Asia Foundation in Seoul, now at Stanford University. "The rules have changed."

Mr. Snyder says the novel "Waiting" by Chinese author Ha Jin, set during the brutal Cultural Revolution, contains a psychological parallel with North Korea today. It was a time when the unwritten street codes of survival in China were so at odds with propaganda that even loyalists asked questions, albeit quietly.

The North Korean paradox does not mean Kim Jong Il is any less an absolute ruler, or that his regime is on the brink of collapse, as some in Washington have hoped, and which the October Atlantic Monthly cover article implies. The demise of Kim has been predicted regularly for a decade or more. Kim has regularly turned "the brink" into clever brinkmanship.

Yet 10 years of agony at home, and a China that is changing the dynamics of Asia, may make Kim Jong Il more willing to play out dramatic – and potentially dangerous – scenarios, experts warn. The July 4 missile tests, and the possibility of a North Korean nuclear test, rumored in recent months, are two such examples. North Korea said over the weekend that it would remove more fuel rods from its Yongbyon reactor to process plutonium.

"The idea that Kim Jong Il debates moderates and hard-liners to stay in power, there's no evidence for that," says Brian Myers, a North Korean researcher at Dongseo University in Busan. "But he may face slacking loyalty. People get food in their bellies, stop thinking only of survival, and question. The [July 4] missile tests and talk of nuclear tests may be about creating the tension Kim needs internally."

Nor does the North's paradox mean its society is near collapse. During the famine hundreds of thousands of refugees left for China. But today the border is fairly stable. Refugees may only number 50,000, according to some estimates. Visas can be purchased, cash on the barrel. Black market cellphone rentals using Chinese signals on the border make it possible for North Koreans to call abroad. One of Park's daughters in the North phones her in Seoul.

Nor is there evidence that the notorious gulags and work camps in the North are closing. South Korean intelligence estimates 200,000 political prisoners live in the gulags. Few who go into the six or seven hard-core camps, come out. Millions more live in various forms of detention or in geographic areas that segregate those deemed less than perfectly loyal.

Park and her family narrowly escaped the fate of a prison camp – though they did not know this until later. (See story below.)

Today, China and South Korea may help Kim feel he is in a "post-isolation" period. Yet Kim also faces disillusionment. NKNet reports Army soldiers in the North have started to more regularly break into homes and steal. The actual state of the prison labor camps, moreover, is unknown. Those caught smuggling information or rare video about prisons or extrajudicial killings simply disappear.

Chung Chin Sung, member from Seoul of the UN subcommission on the promotion and protection of human rights, said in July that "hygienic conditions have improved in the labor camps" at a human rights conference at the Seoul Press Center. Such a public admittance in the South of camps in the North is rare, given the Roh Moo-hyun government's policy of engagement. Still, no rights groups contacted in Seoul would confirm any evidence that gulag conditions are better. There have been no official visits to Yodok – the gulag best known from the account of survivor Kang Chol-hwan in "The Aquariums of Pyongyang."

Lacking a change like the departure of Kim, the geopolitical hope in Asia is that his regime will reform gradually. Yet experts say such gradualism requires "tuning out" information about suffering. In South Korea, the conditions of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of North Korean individuals are not known, and rarely alluded to. In China, they are never mentioned.

"The cognitive dissonance in Seoul created by human rights problems in the North is to repeat that, 'Things are really not so bad in the North,' " says Mr. Myers. Yodok survivor Mr. Kang says: "There [is] no shortage of rationalizations for remaining silent [in South Korea] in the face of the evil that lies a mere 40 miles north. The simple truth ... is constantly distorted."

"My concern," says an analyst who found Yodok using satellite imagery, "is that one day [North Korea] will finally collapse and we will go in – and find things were far worse than anyone imagined."

Beaten and broken – one North Korean family's tale

The Park family left North Korea for China in 1999, when they got too weak to work. They fled to the Tumen River. Mrs. Park was in "a daze," she says. It was summer. "I had the feeling if we didn't leave North Korea right away, we would die. I didn't leave out of disloyalty to [North Korean leader] Kim [Jong Il]. I left for the family."

China was another world. They had to hide. They had nothing to trade but a daughter – who married a Korean Chinese farmer. "It was traditional, in a garden in the village center," Park says. "There was a wedding cloth, and we took a picture. But it wasn't legal."

Then the new husband began asking his bride for money. He was sure the Parks brought cash from Korea. He threatened to report them. Later he pointed a knife at the daughter, who fled to her parents, terrified. Then the farmer turned in the Parks. He also wrote a letter to the North Korean police, saying the Parks were agitators. They heard of this only later.

"It was a lie. We never spoke against Kim, not until we went back to the North."

Back in the North, Park expected only a rebuke. Instead, the family went to an interrogation center for 18 days, then 22 days at a police camp. The camp separated "political" from "ordinary" criminals. At every step the Parks were beaten and suffered torture designed to "break" them.

"Back in the North under the security police, we were no longer human beings. I was treated as worse than an animal," Park says.

Park, over 65, was told to strip her clothes in a large yard. She thought the police were looking for weapons or contraband. But it was money they wanted. Along the border Koreans hide money in body cavities. "We were naked and told to stand and sit over and over again, up to 100 times. We were told to keep our hands behind us, and those who didn't had them tied," Park says. "After so much exercise, whatever is inside you falls out. You can't imagine the humiliation."

Prisoners had five rules: Work from 7:30 to 7:30. When not working, sit on your knees. Keep your head down. Never move, not a finger, or you will be hit. Finally, confess your mistakes constantly. "We were told to say over and over, 'I am sorry, I am sorry for what I have done.' "

At the police camp, Park witnessed an event she will never forget. She was in a room with two dozen females. A pregnant woman went into labor. Park says a baby girl was born at 3:50 am. Various elderly women in the room helped her deliver. The baby started screaming and didn't stop. Around 5:30 the guard, 18 or 19, lost his temper. He shouted at the mother to silence the child. The child didn't stop screaming. The young man then went out of control and told the mother to kill the child. The mother started to cry, and then the guard said he would kill them both.

There were no instruments to cut the umbilical cord and tie it off. So the mother bit it off, but did not tie it off. The child died in an hour. The mother left that morning.

"It was mad thinking and feeling," Park says. "I wish I could forget."

Park eventually escaped to Seoul via an underground Christian group. Today she leads a refugee group for women. She is implacably opposed to the Kim regime.

"I complain when Kim tests these useless missiles while we in the millions are poor, having nothing. This is something unforgivable."

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