Even as North Korea is cheered for expanding its official contacts with nations from Italy to Japan, conditions inside the country are eliciting a grimmer reaction.
At the first human rights conference here last month dedicated to bringing attention to the plight of political prisoners in North Korea, organizers and former North Korean residents spoke of widespread abuses. "The situation is getting worse," says the Rev. Yoon Hyun of the Citizens' Alliance to Help Political Prisoners in North Korea, a Seoul-based nongovernmental group.
Since losing its patron, the Soviet Union, a decade of economic crisis has been exacerbated by more challenges for the North's totalitarian regime. Corruption is rising among desperate petty officials who will sell anything to make ends meet, more refugees are fleeing to China and farther afield, and a three-year-old famine has hastened societal breakdown, say advocacy groups.
North Korea has imprisoned about 200,000 people in 12 camps surrounded by barbed wire, traps, and remote mountains, according to South Korean and US intelligence analysis of satellite photographs. And accounts given by defectors to South Korea paint a dark picture.
On the best days, Kang Cheol Hwan says he roasted rodents on an open fire to eat. In the North Korean camp for political prisoners, it was a rare consolation. New prisoners were greeted by guards saying, "You are no longer a human being," according to Mr. Kang.
Fourteen-hour days in the fields, mines, and factories were punctuated with beatings and torture. North Korea imprisoned Kang when he was nine years old: His grandfather had somehow offended the regime - to this day Kang doesn't know how - and as is customary, the whole family was sentenced to life without trial.
US State Department reports on human rights in North Korea note the difficulty in assessing the current situation because of the country's extreme isolation. But much is known about North Korea's open methods of social control. Radios have their dials factory- welded to official propaganda stations glorifying the rule of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il. The population is categorized into three groups according to a person's perceived loyalty to the state. Nearly 1 in 5 citizens spy on each other.
Defectors say little is known among the general population about camps for political prisoners - but when whole families disappear, neighbors know something terrible has happened. The outside world only learned of them in detail around 1992, based on the accounts of a few escapees.
But like most defectors, former camp guard Ahn Myung Chulit says personal problems, not disgust at human rights violations or a totalitarian system, prompted him to flee his country.
Mr. Ahn once enjoyed a privileged life, with comfortable quarters, meat to eat four times a week, and a steady career path. During martial-arts practice, guards used prisoners as punching bags: "They couldn't fight back. They just had to sit there and take it," says Ahn, who also spoke at the December conference.
Ahn ran away after eight years as a guard. His father had illegally given a neighbor's daughter some extra corn from a food-distribution center. Ahn's father died and his mother was sent to a prison camp. Ahn figured he was next. One night he stole a car, drove to the Chinese border, and swam across the river.
But Ahn believed so strongly in the greatness of Kim Jong Il that as a refugee in China, he punched someone who criticized Kim.
Kang, on the other hand, was released from prison because the government was trying to improve relations with Japan, where Kang's family had immigrated from. Kang rejoined North Korean society but defected to South Korea after he was heard singing a South Korean song - a serious crime - and he feared being sent back to camp.
Yoon says many North Koreans are strongly opposed to the system but cannot mount organized resistance because of the culture of fear. "The prison camps make this society hold together," says Ahn. Widespread spying makes an atmosphere where "nobody trusts anybody," says Kang.
Nevertheless, there is explosive potential, says Yoon. "North Korea is like a room filled with butane gas. There are lots of people against the government. Just one incident could set it off."
"North Korea is the last worst place on Earth," says Jack Rendler, former director of the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, and a conference attendee. "In the last 15 to 20 years, many governments have recognized that respecting human rights is important [for their legitimacy]."
South Korea pursues a policy of engagement with North Korea, hoping that expanded business and cultural ties can reduce tensions and lay a foundation for peace. But government talks remain rare, Seoul has little means to pressure the North on human rights.
Other governments say they also have little leverage. "If you look at the parallel with China, a lot of things that stand in the way of a normal relationship [with the United States] have to do with human rights," says a Western observer in Seoul. In North Korea, the US "has far less influence and nowhere near a normal dialogue."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society