- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 6 (UPI) — Western reporters visiting North Korea, the mysterious, closed, so-called "Hermit Kingdom," are kept under close supervision. They can only catch from their buses and hotel windows tantalizing glances of an impoverished, destitute, still-ferociously monitored totalitarian state which lacks even the electrical power to light up the home apartments of its capital city Pyongyang at night.

For an appalling famine has swept North Korea in the past half-decade, and its dire effects are still shaking the reclusive, mountainous land of 25 million people. But this famine has also had the paradoxical effect of leaking many of its secrets — if not to the wider world, then at least to the intelligence services of its neighbors.

According to senior East Asian intelligence sources, more than one-third of a million people have succeeded in fleeing North Korea during the famine years since the death of the North's founding father and dictator for nearly half a century, Kim Il Sung, in 1994.

According to North Korea's own secret but official figures, at least 2 million people out of a population then at 27 million — almost half that of the state of California — died in the famine, these intelligence sources said.

But they cautioned that the North Korean state was in such a condition of decay that these figures could not be regarded as reliable. The figures might even err dramatically on the low side since regional Communist Party leaders would be reluctant to admit the actual figures to Pyongyang, assuming they were even able to collect them reliably.

Some 100,000 of these people succeeded in crossing to South Korea, these sources said. And they include a handful of top-level defectors from the Communist leadership of North Korea.

Less well known, these sources said, at least one-fourth of a million North Koreans have managed to flee to the northeast across the Yalu River, Korea's ancient frontier with neighboring China. And they now live in conditions of extreme privation, uncertainty, destitution and no security in the northeastern Chinese province of Manchuria, the intelligence sources said.

Child labor and child prostitution are extremely common in Manchuria for these North Korean refugees, the intelligence sources said.

But because of China's own growing vast unemployment problem and developing economic problems, the Beijing government lacks the control and the resources to bring the problem under control. Therefore, it is reduced to simply trying to prevent more of the refugees from crossing the border and making things worse, these sources said.

Yet so horrendous were the conditions they fled in North Korea that even this miserable existence in China is preferable to staying in their homeland, the intelligence sources said.

From such a large number of refugees, the intelligence services of China and South Korea have been able to piece together, in many respects for the first time in half a century, a clearer and more reliable picture of life in the North. And many of their conclusions have circulated among policy-makers in neighboring Northeast Asian countries, the intelligence sources said.

The picture that emerges is of a society where the worst of the famine is over, at least for the moment, but where existence remains grim and hand-to-mouth with a command economy and only the barest subsistence barter to supplement it.

Things are getting slowly and steadily worse, not better. And this process is clear to the Communist ruling elite, the East Asian intelligence sources said.

In order to provide a modicum of pay and morale, the Pyongyang government is attempting to carry out ambitious public works. But most, if not all, of the projects involved make no economic sense, these sources said.

In one instance, an enormous 14-lane highway is being built between Pyongyang and a regional center. But the old road it is going to replace has almost no motor traffic and little human traffic of any kind. What commerce and travel there was, was carried overwhelmingly by oxcart, one East Asian intelligence source said.

This source said that work on the highway in question was being carried out by many thousands of physical laborers at a time. But they had absolutely no bulldozers or other heavy earth-moving or rock-breaking machinery. All of that work was being done by hand, this source said.

Despite the famine, the mind-numbing poverty and the dire shortages of coal and of electrical generating power — or perhaps because of them — there appears to be no direct or foreseeable threat to the ruling communist regime of Kim Jong-il. Certainly both outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his elected successor, President-elect Roh Moo-hyun, are convinced that this is so, sources close to both men have told United Press International.

Ordinary people in the North, South Korean analysts believe, are too exhausted and demoralized by the struggle for existence to think of any protest, and in any case have hardly known anything different all their lives. North Korea was a harshly ruled Japanese colony for decades before 1945 when the Communist regime was established with strong Soviet support in the North.

"If there is any society on earth bereft of hope today, North Korea is probably it," one senior East Asian intelligence analyst told UPI.

From the accounts of him and others, it sounds hard to disagree.

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(This is the last part in a five-part series that looked at the dispute between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang's nuclear program.)

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