Escape from hunger, fear in N. Korea

Refugees describe life inside Pyongyang's fortress regime

Jae Rok Lim's tidy apartment here is filled with books for an English degree, popular music tapes, and fresh fruit and fish from street vendors.

These were once unattainable luxuries for Mr. Lim, who a year ago was living in a small city in North Korea, 50 miles outside Pyongyang. But what this slender, solemn man prizes most about his new life is "thinking my own thoughts."

Lim is one of perhaps 200,000 North Koreans who, driven by hunger or fear, have been trying to escape one of the most repressive and controlling regimes on the planet. This week, about 10 North Korean asylum seekers slipped into the South Korean consulate in Beijing, defying Chinese security. They're the latest in a rash of North Koreans who have made their way to foreign embassies in China and, after elaborate negotiations, been allowed to go free.

As living conditions in the fortress regime of North Korea slowly deteriorate, such cases represent the tip of an iceberg of discontent and uncertainty inside the North, say defectors. Aside from eyewitness accounts like Lim's, the North remains a mystery. Travel outside Pyongyang, the capital city, is generally off-limits – except for highly scripted visits by a handful of diplomats and aid workers who must travel with native guides.

After hours of Monitor interviews with several defectors (whose names have been changed), a picture emerges of a grim and punishing world whose structures of police and military control remain very strong.

Lim, whose family was poor, says he grew up thinking North Korea was "the best country." He wanted to be a model citizen like his dad, a metal-factory technician who won a worker's prize from Kim Il Sung, the late father-figure of the North. "I was brainwashed for 20 years. Ideology was hammered into me from a child," he says.

It was while visiting relatives in China, who are part of a huge ethnic Korean population displaced by the Japanese in World War II, that Lim heard his first criticisms of the current leader Kim Jong Il. Lim argued with his kin for a month. But once home, things felt different: "China seemed more alive. I could watch TV. Going back to the North, I felt like I was going back to hell. It was so gray. The people were so sad. I was interrogated at college. There was little food; we students were issued corn powder once a day."

Whispers of change

Yet beneath the official, Potemkin-like façade, defectors say, are signs of change driven by years of famine, a new black market economy, and a growing awareness that life outside is far better. Contrary to stereotypes of North Koreans as unthinking automatons, the overwhelming consensus of defectors, aid workers, and support groups consulted for this report points to a new culture of whispering, a people more cynical about leader Kim Jong Il, and more willing to leave.

"We all lived double lives," says Lim. "We hide our feelings inside and pretend to be happy on the outside." Lim visited his relatives a second time. On his third trip, however, he crossed the frozen border on foot and – with the help of a group of Koreans in China who were assisting refugees – left North Korea for good.

The changes stem partly from more interaction among people – born of hardship and the search for food. It's triggered by more scraps of information about the outside world that seep in: the stories from repatriated defectors, from a growing number of radios smuggled from China, even from DVDs and limited contact with foreign-aid workers.

"Some people... don't seem to fear the security agents anymore, and group together to whisper among themselves," says a defector interviewed this spring by NKNet, a human rights group in Seoul. "They say things like, 'In other countries, even elementary schools have computers for their students, but here, even college students rarely get to touch one.'"

Defectors also tell of a general unease with leader Kim. To be sure, the population still heaps praise on the current "Dear Leader." But the younger Kim is not viewed with the same awe and reverence as the father. Visits to factories and neighborhoods by the older Kim, known as "Great Leader," were treated in the North as joyous celebrations.

"The son has never made a connection with the people," says Norbert Vollersten, a German doctor who lived for 16 months in the North, and whose practice gave him unusual access to places outside Pyongyang.

"The people are working like slaves. They are fed up with hunger. They aren't stupid. They know what is happening in China, in South Korea. They also know that Kim is well-informed about their condition. Some told me, 'He treats us like insects.' "

"No one will criticize Kim openly," says defector Kim Hyuk, who left North Korea in 1993 and now counsels refugees in Seoul. "But someone might say to another on the street who seems unhappy, 'What kind of country is this?' Five years ago, no one would dare say it." Mr. Hyuk recalls a childhood in a small town in central North Korea spent reading novels his father had to smuggle from Russia.

Still, few escapees believe a major social implosion is on the way. The binding cords of military and secret police, informers, and guards remain thickly interwoven, they say – inside apartment complexes, on the street, in factories. North Koreans still can't travel outside their home district except with passes whose numeric codes change every month. Most North Koreans now have TVs; but only one to three channels are available, and the sets must be registered with the police, who "adjust" them to block overseas stations.

Intelligence reports confirmed by defectors suggest three levels of life among the North's 22 million inhabitants. In a swath of territory buffering Pyongyang are the "wavering" class – those whose absolute loyalty is questioned. On the periphery, particularly up in the far north, is the "lower" class, who do not show devotion to Kim. Detention camps in this area are barbed wire cities as large as Washington, DC, say sources.

The third and "top" class lives in Pyongyang – the nation's showcase city and the epitome of the North's "Juche" philosophy of obedience and love of leader Kim. To live in the capital, one must be appointed or invited. North Koreans can't enter without a special pass that is difficult to obtain and forge. Those with disabilities are not invited. Even families with disorderly children are barred – or sent away.

"To live in Pyongyang you must be perfect in every way," says Lim. "You have to have ideological clarity. You can have no record of bad incidents. Your ancestors must be checked for a flawless record. If your grandparents helped the Japanese in World War II, for example, even if they were farmers who grew food for the Japanese, you are not allowed."

Ideology, fear still strong

While Pyongyang residency guarantees access to food, there are drawbacks, defectors say. One must follow strictly all orders from authorities and gladly participate in pro-Kim ceremonies and ideological study groups. In Pyongyang, house or street cleaners and landscapers, are rare: Whether to keep the "riff-raff" out, or as a sign of devotion to a perfect society, citizens of Pyongyang, in addition to their jobs, spend part of every day with a broom or grass clippers.

Outside Pyongyang, defectors report more cities with factories closed due to lack of materials or power. "People go to work, and do nothing," says Kang, a defector who grew up in a northern border town. A lack of power means no refrigeration, no available milk. The regime owns the cows, and milk goes to the wealthy. Parents complain that their children spend more time looking for food than playing, says Kim.

Yet the food supply has improved from five years ago, after a famine that took as many as 2.5 million lives. "People make tofu at home. I saw fewer starving children on the street," Kang says.

While the lengthy famine helped break down some of the rigid social order, other elements also played a role. The death of Kim Il Sung brought some disarray, as did a market-driven China with its dazzling new wealth and high-tech abundance. And Christian groups, often set up within South Korean companies in China, have, until a recent crackdown, provided a lifeline.

Black markets are thriving, and people can be seen constantly on the move, walking from town to town with bags of goods for sale or trade. Smuggled Chinese products are visible.

But ideology and fear remain strong for now. In every district a huge palatial building called "the research center for Kim Il Sung" can be found, say defectors. It is typically the most expensive building in the region, often constructed with imported marble.

"In terms of sheer totalitarianism, as more intelligent people pay attention to the North, they gasp at the amount of control, and especially thought control, there," says Tim Peters, who runs a Seoul-based food aid program.

Even in Seoul, fear persists among defectors for families back home. During one interview, a defector suddenly stopped and told a reporter to write on his journalistic visiting card, "I will not reveal any specific details of this talk."

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