Shifting signs in North Korea

Kim Jong Il dials back personality cult as protest activities pick up.

Years can drift by between press conferences in Pyongyang. But recently the tiny resident press corps, namely the ITAR-Tass correspondent Stanislav Varivoda and two Chinese journalists, were summoned to hear Mr. Varivoda's story refuted.

He reported last month that portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had disappeared from key public buildings. Further, the media had stopped using the honorific "Dear Leader" in official bulletins.

"There's not normally much to do here but this has caused a storm," Varivoda said in a phone interview from Pyongyang. "At the press conference they said nothing I reported is true."

Small signs often portend big changes in closed societies, especially in the secretive court of North Korea's Kim dynasty. Observers are wondering if this is just another mad whim from the palace - like the edicts forbidding women to wear red trousers or to eat hamburgers. Or if, after 3 million deaths from starvation on his watch, Kim Jong Il's star many finally be falling - something suggested by numerous North Korean refugees in recent interviews.

Resident diplomats see nothing unusual in the country but confirm the portraits are gone in a few places. The 62-year-old Kim continues to be addressed with more than a thousand honorifics such as "The Lodestar of the 21st Century" and "Guardian of Our Planet."

Varivodo thinks that Kim Jong Il realizes that foreigners find the personality cult absurd and so has had the portraits taken down at places where foreign delegations are received.

"They want to avoid the negative reactions and stupid questions about the personality cult," he says. "They know foreigners find it odd, but really there has been no other change to the personality cult here."

No one is sure what Kim is up to. The Sunday Times of London says Kim has gone into seclusion, depressed by the reelection of President Bush and the death of his favorite mistress.

Top Kiminologists like Japan's Kosuke Takahashi say he is downplaying his personality in order to court younger South Koreans. Ruediger Frank, professor of East Asian Political Economy at the University of Vienna, sees this as a preparation for succession and an eventual collective leadership.

A third expert, veteran journalist Bradley K. Martin who has just published "Under the Loving Case of the Father: North Korea under the Kim Dynasty," portrays it as a response to domestic pressures. Ordinary people are starting to object to the cult as they learn more about the outside world, he contends.

Since the 1994 death of his father, Kim has micromanaged the country but failed to stick to any coherent plan for fixing deep economic woes. Chronic food shortages, most acute in the mid-1990s, led to mass starvation.

Interviews with dozens of North Korean refugees in China and South Korea reveal a popular disillusionment with Kim. The refugees blame him and hate him in a way they never hated his father, Kim Il Sung.

They suggest he hid the collapse of the economy in the 1980s from his father by feeding him a string of false statistics. People first began starving to death in the 1980s, but Kim Jong Il persuaded his father to accelerate the nuclear-weapons program and inflate the size of the military.

Kim Jong Il may have felt vindicated by these policy choices when so many other Communist dictators were swept away after 1989. Yet he barely hung on after his father's death.

Refugees speak of plots to assassinate Kim Jong Il in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1995. In Pyongyang he narrowly escaped an attempt in March 1998 and another in 2001; this year he escaped by minutes an explosion at Ryonchon as his train returned from China.

The humanitarian situation eased after South Korea began to send food and cash as a part Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy.

By then, even the military and party elites were dying of hunger and Kim had to terrorize the population into submission. In February 1998, troops backed by 150 tanks occupied Songrim where the steel mill had shut down and hundreds of workers had already died of hunger. The troops stayed there for three months, staged public executions, and send hundreds into camps. He staged similar exhibitions of naked power in other key industrial cities, say refugees.

Refugees also indicate that opposition has become more open and daring. More and more pamphlets and banners are appearing calling for Kim's overthrow. Almost all refugees report seeing slogans such as "Down with Kim Jong Il" painted on walls, pylons, and railway carriages throughout the country. Statues and murals of the Kims have been defaced, and the halls erected for worship of the Kim family have been burnt down. Some officials have been found killed in their homes.

Although the food crisis is easing, with the World Food Program reporting a good harvest for this year, the country remains on the brink of starvation.

Kim has survived so far but he is coming under increasing pressure from outside. China has stationed an estimated 30,000 troops on the border and is pressing him to respond to Bush administration's renewed demands that he abandon his nuclear weapons. China's top leader will pay his first visit to both Koreas next year to help bring an end to the stalemate.

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