When it comes to signs of the times, North Korea has produced some of the most puzzling. What does it mean, for example, when the son of one of the world's most doctrinaire Communist leaders produces a popular new film with so unrevolutionary a plot as a folk parable, the story of Chun Hyang?
Everyone in Korea -- North and South -- knows the old tale.
While her fiance is away on the king's business, the beautiful young country woman Chun Hyang (Fragrance of Spring) rejects the propositioning of a corrupt official and is thrown in jail. Her fiance returns disguised as a beggar, throws off his disguise, and reveals the king's seal. The corrupt officials fall to their knees and Chun Hyang is freed.
"We were just not expecting to find this story romanticized on film in a country long seen as one of the most isolated, regimented, and doctrinaire on earth," reflects Maud Easter, recently back with her husband from a rare tour through communist North Korea.
The husband-and-wife team has lived in Japan for the past three years, watching Korea for the Quaker peace organization, the American Friends Service Committee. They have been taking their controversial conclusions to audiences in 26 cities across the US.
"Here you have a story that is popular with the people but apparently not with leader Kim II Sung, and yet was made into a film by his son and promoted with great success," Mrs. Easter says.
"It indicated to us a peaceful and romantic dimension about North Korean culture that had not been part of the war-mongering stereotypes we had known in the West. In fact, more generally we found the North Koreans quite interested in reducing tension with South Korea and improving cultural relations with the US."
But the Easters' explanation is itself something of a puzzle to Korea experts in the US. In fact, nothing could make some of them more skeptical, given the current political climate.
Since May -- when South Korean leader Park Chung Hee was replaced by Gen. Chon Deo Hwan, who has crushed popular movements for reforms and sentenced dissident leader Kim Dae Jung to death -- the (pre-November) Congress has grown more and more disenchanted over US-South Korean relations. But the government is adamant about not letting North Korea exploit the situation.
For a long time, the North has wanted to unify the country by holding talks with the US that would exclude Washington's ally in the South. Some analysts think the North is now trying to make an end run around the South (perhaps because it feels side-lined now that China and the US are growing more friendly). For that reason, they say, images of North Korean life offered to visitors like the Easters are exceedingly hard to interpret.
"Contrary to the Easters' impression, for example, the film of Chun Hyang could be a political design to reinforce the personality cult surrounding the North's President Kim II Sung," William Shaw, a Korea specialist at Harvard University, argues. "It props up the whole idea that the way to deal with problems is for a benevolent paternalistic ruler to come in and right all the people's wrongs."
Nevertheless, despite the controversy, firsthand looks at North Korean life are so rare that the experts do not discount the Easters' views entirely.
"Reducing tension on the Korean Peninsula has long been the goal of North Korea, South Korea, and the US alike," Mr. Shaw adds. "And the Easters are at least asking new questions about longstanding obstacles to achieving that goal."
Pointing to the astonishingly successful increase in cultural exchanges between the US and Communist China, the Easters ask, why not North Korea, too?
They are determined to bring a nongovernmental delegation of North Koreans to tour the US in the near future. They hope it will lead to more invitations for Americans to visit North Korea. Without such cultural exchange, they argue, prevailing Western stereotypes of North Korea will stick and conflict never be ended.
"We went to North Korea with the hope of testing our own stereotypes," David Easter says; "for example, the common perception in our country that North Korea is a totally isolated country, tightly controlled by a very tiny elite who order the broader society around, and that life in such a socialist country must be dull and drab.
"Indeed, our views shifted considerably after 11 days of tours through the capital city of Pyongyang, the port city of Nampo, a cooperative farm, factories , several schools, cultural performances, a hospital, nurseries, and stores."
The Easters admit the limits of their tour. Lasting only 11 days, it was supervised by the North Koreans, although the visitors had some choice about places they toured. They were allowed to see nothing of the military or to learn about the darker sides of the country's social development. And like most people admitted into North Korea, they are not Korea scholars, do not speak Korean, and had to make contacts through an interpreter. In fact, the North Koreans denied a visa to a Korea specialist, Dr. Bruce Cumings of the University of Washington, who was to accompany them.
"On the one hand, we came away feeling that the Communist regime has not done well in terms of freedoms of press, religion, or speech," explains the sandy-haired, bearded David Easter, who is careful to qualify the positive images he gives of North Korean society. "They don't stress these freedoms. We saw no indication of Christians or churches even though there were many of them before the war. They said there were some practicing Buddhists and Confucians but we didn't see them.
"But on the other hand, the North Koreans havem made considerable economic progress in housing, security, health care, and education. They are extremely proud of these achievements and we think they would be loath to risk losing them through new military confrontation."
In Pyongyang, the Easters found a modern city with many colorful, well-managed parks and high-rise apartment and office buildings in modern architectural style, intermingled with traditionally styled public buildings whose long roofs slope downward then curve up at the ends.
"For a city totally flattened by bombing during the war, they have obviously made strides," Mr. Easter says.
Visitors are greeted by the city's huge, gold-colored statue of President Kim Il Sung in a "modified Mao" suit waving his hand high in the air -- one of thousands of images of the leader that adorn buildings throughout the country.
Pyongyang is percolating with ambitious new building projects, including a giant national library complex that combines modern and traditional architecture , and a huge tepee-shaped indoor skating rink. Although cars are scarce, the electric, red-striped trolley buses are a frequent sight.
While they were walking through a park, the Easters asked their guide if they could meet a Korean family.A gathering was arranged (spontaneously, it seemed to the Easters) with Li Sang Il, a factory foreman whose family lived nearby in a high-rise apartment block similar to those that house some 80 percent of Pyongyang's population.
Entering the three-room apartment, they were all seated on white pillows on Mr. Li's heated living room floor. Most North Korean houses are heated by hot water pipes under the floor. The water is pumped in from a central power station in the city.
"We were surprised when Mr. Li asked us if we minded having his wife and children come into the room," Mrs. Easter reflects. "Only then did Mrs. Li enter with her nine-year-old son and two daughters, aged 22 and 5. We were also taken by how Westernized was the dress of these, and the majority, of North Koreans, although, of course, you find this in South Korea and Japan."
Indeed, photographs of the occasion show Mr. Li, a relatively tall, strongly built man, wearing an open-collared white short-sleeved shirt and dark trousers. His wife and elder daughter are in floral-print dresses (although women occasionally wear more traditional Korean dress); the son has on the usual schoolboy uniform of black pants, white shirt, and red neckerchief; the little girl is in a short jumper, white blouse, and red neckerchief, and in her hair is the bright-colored plastic flower-bow worn by all girls between ages 2 and 14.
"Mrs. Li brought in some sliced sausage and crackers and a strange beverage served only on the most special occasions," Mrs. Easter recalls. "She and her children did not speak unless we specifically asked them questions. But just to have them present was more than we have seen in South Korea, where you hardly ever see women's faces, the result of strong Confucian influence."
Mr. Li, like most factory employees in this highly organized society, receives a salary based on daily work performance. His wages are calculated daily by a committee on the basis of a work-point system that assesses quality and quantity of work and a person's experience.
"The North Koreans, though socialists, have decided that money incentives promote better work in industry. But it's not just to coerce the workers to produce more," Mr. Easter argues. "Their economy operates by strict scheduling. They have to keep track of how much they're producing and if they're meeting the schedule."
Although Mrs. Li works as a janitor in the national library, a relatively high number of women in Korean society are said to hold high-paying jobs, and women generally receive salaries comparable to men's for the same task. Many doctors are said to be women. They earn 170 North Korean won per month, while the average salary in the country is 95 won.
According to the Lis and the Easters' tour hosts, about 1 in 4 North Koreans belongs to the Communist Party. Thus, nearly every family has some contact with the party organization, and the government has contact with them.
The Easters, however, found the party's presence less obvious than they expected. Mrs. Li's situation is a case in point. Like any other married woman who is not a party member, she belongs to the women's union, whose activities, she says, involve family matters and singing, not indoctrination.
"They may have been extremely clever in hiding from us indoctrination that goes on in those meetings," David Easter explains, "but the women we talked to gave no indication of it. We did see people training far in advance for parades for the recent party congress. So obviously people are highly organized for various doctrinal purposes. But we didn't find evidence for such organizing in the women's league."
"For their part, the Lis wanted to know about living conditions in South Korea," Mrs. Easter recalls. "They, like 20 percent of all Koreans, have relatives living on the other side of the border."
"When we told them we were from a peace organization that deplored the destruction that had occurred to their society during the war, they thanked us. They admitted feeling uneasy about our coming to their country. But they assumed that since we were guests of the society, it was all right. And they had read of our arrival in the newspapers."
It is impossible to know if the Lis' living conditions were typical of Pyongyang. But their material needs seem to have been more than adequately met -- from the color TV to the sewing machine to the small refrigerator replete with plucked chicken. The Easters were told that families spend only about 1 percent of their income on rent, that health care and education are free, and that everyone gets a vacation of from 15 to 28 days per year.
And there are provisions for the children. The younger Li daughter attends a neighborhood school only three minutes' walk from home.
"The Koreans have a saying, we were told, that in their country, children are king," Mr. Easter says. "We found that in the schools we attended, they had indeed lavished resources on children."
The fact that the Easters were allowed such meetings with the Lis and other families in North Korea -- albeit with supervision -- seems something of a departure from the days when the first Americans visited North Korea in 1972. Then Korea scholar Jerome Cohen of Harvard wrote with disappointment, "[We were] not allowed to walk freely, did much of our sightseeing from a speeding car, and were always accompanied by escorts . . . and elaborate precautions were taken to minimize our contacts with people."
The Easters were also not excluded, as was Professor Cohen, from what he then termed the "ubiquitous Kim Il Sung rooms." These are rooms in museums, cooperative farms, schools, and other public buildings supposed to have been visited by President Kim. They were then set aside solely for photo exhibits of the visit and quotations from Mr. Kim presented as moral instruction.
"Actually, we went prepared to be much more disturbed by the Kim Il Sung cult than we were," David says. "To be sure, there were images of him everywhere -- in schools, in peoples' homes, models of Kim Il Sung's birthplace in nurseries and schools. It seems that talking about his life or visits is a vehicle for basic moral training. But although you hear a short message about Kim Il Sung when you visit a factory, once it's over you don't hear any more about it.
"We were taken to Kim Il Sung's birthplace, where we were told the story of Kim Il Sung climbing a rock in his childhood. He apparently had fallen down and torn his pants. He thought, 'My mother is going to have to sew my pants. My mother works so hard for me. I have to be careful not to fall on rocks again.'
"This little story was used like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree to make a moral point relating to the broader society -- in this case about respecting your elders and taking care of your clothes.
"Of course, the personality cult is also used to unify the country around their leader. But people seemed extremely proud and emotionally attached to Kim Il Sung and were surprised when we challenged them about the dangers of having one person being so prominent."
In the broader economic perspective, the North Koreans claim to be almost self-sufficient, although the Easters do not claim to be able to fully substantiate this from independent sources.
The country manages to produce nearly enough to feed itself, according to the North Koreans (a point confirmed by a 1978 CIA study). This has been achieved through irrigation, heavy fertilizer use, and hybrid seeds. North Korea's production of rice per hectare is comparable to Japan's, according to United Nations agriculture officials the Easters met in Korea.
North Koreans also claim to be nearly energy self-sufficient thanks to hydroelectric and coat development. Only 5 percent of their energy supply has to be imported, they claim. Public transport runs on electricity. Coal has been used as a base for fertilizer and synthetic fabrics.
The Easters were also told that North Korea is not nearly as isolated from the rest of the world as many Westerners believe. It has diplomatic relations with 102 nations -- mostly socialist and third-world countries. Its exports include magnesium, copper, fish, rice, and some machinery. And in the '70s, the country imported a lot of Western technology.
The Easters were shown rather aged textile machinery once imported from the USSR, as well as very sophisticated farm and hospital machinery imported more recently from the Japanese, with whom the North Koreans are expected to greatly increase their trade this year.
In addition, the North Koreans' notorious inability to meet its foreign payments in the 1970s is being overcome, according to talks the Easters had with Japanese and Swiss businessmen in Korea.
The picture the Easters give of North Korea's economic successes and departure from isolationism does not satisfy some Korea experts.
"It's true that high-level contacts between officials and the outside world have increased over the past decade," William Shaw says. "But how much is the average citizen allowed to know about the outside world? Nothing. They are totally isolated."
In the past, North Korea has also prohibited visas for Americans specializing in Korean affairs, saying that they cannot allow such exchanges until the US withdraws from Korean soil.
And some views expressed by high officials to the Easters are being contradicted in North Korean radio reports and Japanese newspapers.
The Easters met for 19 hours with North Korean officials -- including Kim Young Nam (secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers Party and a member of the Politburo) and Hyun Jun Gook (a vice-chairman of the Korean Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries and chief negotiator at the Panmunjon working-level talks). They were told that North Korea is anxious to reduce tensions with the US and South Korea.
The North Koreans expressed willingness to: proceed "unconditionally" to unite families divided by the North-South frontier and to arrange immediately for the exchange of correspondence between them -- tomorrow, if possible; and undertake economic and cultural exchanges with South Korea "without preconditions." They said they favored both sides' reducing military expenditures, cutting back troops to no more than 100,000 on each side, and withdrawing military personnel and facilities from the Demilitarized Zone.
These proposals, the Easters say, are closer to South Korean interests than earlier ones have been. But they seem to involve a negotiating relationship with South Korea which is rejected in other official North Korean statements.
For example, the US Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) reported Oct. 2 a North Korean radio message indicating that Korea could not be reunified under any leadership but that of Kim Il Sung.
It praised Mr. Kim as "the legendary hero and lodestar of reunification," and urged "democratic figures" from all walks of life in the South to block the South Korean government's "schemes for perpetuating the division of the country and rise up in the struggle for reunification and national salvation together with the Communists in the North, the genuine patriots. . . ."
On Oct. 1, according to the FBIS, the Japan newspaper Asahi Shimbun recorded an interview with Mr. Kim. He took a hard line against South Korean wishes that final agreements be worked out among all three parties, North and South, and the US.
President Kim said that North Korea should negotiate reunification only with South Korea, excluding the US. But when it came to the question of a full peace agreement (to replace the armistice agreement concluded at the end of the Korean war), President Kim said his country would negotiate with the US exclusively, although South Korea might be given observer status.
And how to evaluate the Easters' claim that the North Koreans accepted their invitation to send a nongovernmental delegation to visit the US? They say that the US State Department agreed (before the election) to consider visa applications on a favorable basis.
US policy, according to Robert Rich of the State Department's Korea desk, is that, although official exchanges are out, private individuals can travel between the two countries. But Mr. Rich is skeptical about the genuineness of North Korea's desire to reduce tensions, whether through increasing cultural exchange with the US or through three-way negotiations.
"It is true that they have long wanted negotiations to unify the country. But they want to do it all at once through a political confederation, and to negotiate solely with the US, without dealing with South Korean authorities. There is no way we could do this. Also, we have tried many formulas to decrease tensions and increase contacts which the North Koreans repeatedly reject. They say they want to trade but then they don't carry through.
"Unification of the country is obviously something they, and the whole Korean people, want. But we're up against a North Korean policy that won't change. They won't deal with the South Korean authorities."
"In addition," Edward Wagner, another Harvard Korea specialist, says, "what are we to make of the tunnels being dug by the North Koreans under the DMZ? Three have been found; many think there are more. Although the South has proposed mail exchanges between North and South, the North has persisted in attaching conditions that make it impossible. And as talks between the two sides started up last year, the hot line between North and South was severed by the North."
Still, there are two Americans back from North Korea who believe they see signs of changing sentiment there -- signs they feel should be followed up on.