- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

A flood of refugees from North Korea in recent years has allowed the intelligence services of China and South Korea for the first time to piece together a reliable profile of life in the closed communist state.

The picture that emerges is one of an impoverished, destitute, ferociously monitored totalitarian state, which lacks even the electrical power to light up apartments of its showcase capital city, Pyongyang, at night.

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

The famine that swept North Korea since the mid-1990s, and its dire effects, are still shaking the reclusive, mountainous land of 25 million people.

According to senior East Asian intelligence sources, nearly 350,000 people have succeeded in fleeing North Korea since the death of the nation's founder and ruler 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, the 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.

Some 100,000 refugees made it to South Korea, including a handful of top-level defectors from the North's communist leadership.

At least another 250,000 of a million North Koreans remain hidden in Northeast China, where they live in conditions of extreme privation, uncertainty and destitution.

Child labor and prostitution are common in the area.

Because of China's own growing vast unemployment problem, the Beijing government lacks the control and the resources to bring the problem under control.

Therefore, China is reduced to simply trying to prevent more refugees from crossing the border and sending back those it catches.

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 worst of the famine is over, at least for the moment, but life inside North Korea remains a grim, hand-to-mouth existence with conditions once again getting slowly and steadily worse.

What's more, the decay is clear to North Korea's ruling elite.

In order to provide a modicum of pay and morale, the Pyongyang government is attempting to carry out ambitious public works projects.

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 little more than a trickle of oxcart traffic, one East Asian intelligence source said.

Work on the highway in question was being carried out by thousands of laborers, without bulldozers or other heavy earth-moving or rock-breaking machinery.

Still, there appears to be no direct or foreseeable threat to the ruling communist regime of leader Kim Jong-il, who inherited power on his father's death in the communist world's first dynastic succession.

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 support by the Soviet Union.

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