FOR the four- and five-year-olds at the model Changgwang Kindergarten, it wasn't just any ordinary day.
Coached, primed, and disciplined to impress like an army of small, grinning robots, the determined children gripped the hands of reluctant foreign visitors and pulled them into participating in relay races and various games.
Under the gaze of proud teachers, with forced glee, frozen smiles, and even some tears of emotion, the children danced and sang about love of their country and the "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung, North Korea's late dictator.
"This pavilion is where the Great Leader made up his mind to serve the country," announced one girl, as she reverently pointed to a model of a cluster of huts regarded as Kim's birthplace.
Small automaton-like prodigies regularly put on shows to demonstrate the superiority of North Korean Communism and are the future anchors of a remnant Stalinist system that regiments the populace and brutalizes its dissenters.
The 500 students at Changgwang, whose parents are mostly members of the ruling Workers' (Communist) Party, get round-the-clock conditioning at the elite kindergarten five days a week and only meet their parents on weekends.
Such strict control perpetuates a society that, despite communism's collapse elsewhere in the world, most approximates the nightmare totalitarian state George Orwell envisaged in his book 1984.
Kim, who until his death last July brooked no opposition to his pervasive cult of personality, is believed to have persecuted hundreds of thousands in a network of harsh detention camps. His oppression was considered worse than anything seen in communist Eastern Europe.
Expatriate Korean groups in Japan and Russia claim that clandestine dissident groups exist in North Korea. But foreign diplomats say that is hard to fathom in a country where people still disappear in the middle of the night, residents can rarely travel and never without official permission, and family members are routinely expected to inform on each other.
Today, Kim's son and heir, Kim Jong Il and North Korean generals maintain that grip. But, in a move mirroring the regime's small experimentation with openness, authorities recently offered a glimpse into their mechanism of control and oppression.
Coinciding with a recent sports festival attended by thousands of foreigners in late April, Amnesty International was allowed a week-long visit to North Korea, only the second by the human rights group in four years.
"It is possible that the authorities ... in question thought that openness to organizations like Amnesty ... is the best way forward for the government," Pierre Robert, head of the delegation, said in a telephone interview from the group's London headquarters. "Our aim was to express human rights concerns [directly to North Korean officials], which is progress in and of itself."
The Amnesty group was allowed to meet with legal, judicial, legislative, foreign-affairs, and public-security officials, and taken to a prison near Sariwon in North Hwanghae Province. That center, with 230 inmates, is one of three such centers for convicted prisoners, holding about 1,000 inmates. About 240 of those inmates, a group that does not include people awaiting trial, have been charged with "antistate" activities. Similar figures were given to Amnesty during its previous visit in 1991.
Of 58 political detainees whose cases were raised by Amnesty, the authorities said that 34 had never been detained or died of natural causes years ago. There was no information on 20 to 22 others, the officials told Amnesty.
North Korean officials also said their vague criminal-procedure laws were being amended to restrict provisions for punishing "crimes against the state."
Still, Amnesty, which in 1993 estimated that North Korea held tens of thousands of prisoners, suggests there is a nonjudicial system, which includes the extra-legal Committee for the Guidance of Law-abiding Life that continues to wield tremendous power.
A model city in which residence is considered an honor and mainly reserved for party members and the military, Pyongyang nevertheless reflects the regimentation and harsh living conditions of most North Koreans.
Disabled persons seem to be barred from living in the spotless, well-organized North Korean capital, foreign residents say, and few elderly Koreans are seen.
The police and military presence is pervasive, say foreign residents, but was disguised during the recent festival by security people dressed in business suits.
For foreigners benefit
Living standards are 30 percent higher than in the countryside, foreign observers estimate. But well-stocked stores visitors were allowed to see were improved for their benefit, and special currency for foreigners was issued for the occasion. North Koreans can't dream of shopping in the half-dozen hard-currency stores. Running a largely barter economy that suffers fuel, food and water shortages, and frequent power blackouts, the government carefully controls distribution of goods and only allows people to use ration coupons.
Still, given the rigid isolation and programed population, many residents think they are better off than the South, where they are told people go hungry and stage food riots. "This is really a military society," says one foreign observer. "As strange as this place is to Westerners, North Koreans are as baffled by foreigners as we are by them."
North Korea reserves the same suspicion for overseas Koreans and even Chinese, to a certain extent. During the festival, hundreds of ethnic Koreans from the United States, Japan, and China flocked to North Korea, many in hopes of reuniting with family and friends. But the authorities allowed only a few meetings.
"I was able to meet my sister-in-law for the first time. She came to the hotel for dinner," said a Korean-American woman who had left the North before the partition. "But most people were closely watched and weren't allowed to see their family and friends."
"Pyongyang is cleaner than Chinese cities, and the housing is better," said a Chinese man from northeastern Heilongjiang Province. "But Chinese would never want to go back to this kind of life again."
The regime's grip on the populace is most evident at Mansu Hill, where throngs of tearful Koreans pay homage to the memory of Kim, the late president. When asked by one foreign visitor to the monument if there is any opposition to the government, guide Chae Sung Chol, retorted angrily, "Unthinkable! I don't like that kind of question!"
Visits to schools, where students are told that everything is a gift from the Kim family, show that building blind obedience starts early. At the Moran Senior Middle School, when asked what she wants to be when she grows up, one English student answered, "I want to be a technician in the Korean Revolution."
In the school gymnasium, 14-year-old Kim Yang Su said he practices table tennis more than two hours a day in hopes of going to the Olympics. "I am going to be a famous table tennis player to glorify the name of my country," said the youth.