- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2011

SEOUL | A prominent North Korean defector says that the totalitarian regime’s officials have begun to voice discontent with Kim Jong Il, going so far as to call the “Dear Leader” crazy.

Kang Cheol-hwan, who writes for one of South Korea’s largest newspapers, The Chosun Ilbo, says North Korean officials have become critical of Mr. Kim since his regime overhauled the country’s paper currency in December 2009. Citizens were given less than a week to exchange a strictly limited number of old notes for new ones.

“There has been a great change after the currency reform,” Mr. Kang told visiting reporters. “Before the reform, the government officials we met with would be very angry if we actually blamed the North Korean leader in any way, but afterwards, even they call him crazy.”

Shrouded in secrecy, North Korea is one of Asia’s most economically challenged countries, plagued by chronic food and fuel shortages, dwindling industrial stock and shrinking farmland.

On Wednesday, Mr. Kim met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing for the third time in just over a year, underlining the importance of their ties as Beijing presses its communist ally to reform its ailing economy, the Associated Press reported.

Beijing is North Korea’s most vital diplomatic and economic supporter and is desperate to prevent a chaotic collapse of Mr. Kim’s isolated regime, which again is appealing for international food assistance following bitter winter weather. The trip comes as a U.S. delegation visits North Korea to assess its food needs.

North Korea has abandoned previous attempts at economic reform and it remains unclear how much 69-year-old Mr. Kim - or his anointed successor, son Kim Jong Un - would be willing to change, the AP reported.

The communist nation’s disastrous attempts at currency reform and the pressure of international nuclear sanctions have put the regime on the defensive, and that might make it less likely to take risks.

What’s more, Mr. Kang estimated that “up to 90 percent” of the North Korean population is now anti-government.

“Even the soldiers are saying among themselves that [since the economic distress has caused some of their parents to commit suicide], ‘If I can’t protect my own parents, how can I protect my country?’ ” he said. “So I would say the North Korean regime is facing a crisis these days. Except for the top ruling classes, people no longer trust the regime.”

Mr. Kang declined to name the North Korean officials who had criticized Kim Jong-Il but said they are among the 1,000-plus officials who visit China every month.

“If they are allowed to go to China, they are of considerable stature,” he said.

As a child, Mr. Kang spent a decade in the brutal Yodok concentration camp after a family member was accused of treason. He defected in 1992 and co-authored a blistering account of Yodok in “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.”

“In the past, people were sent to the concentration camps if they said the wrong thing, but this is no longer the case because now everyone is saying the same thing [against the government],” he said.

“So for people to be sent to the concentration camps, they actually have to have done something - for example, to try to defect or to watch a South Korean movie. It shows that the level of discontent has become very widespread.”

Lee Min-bok, another prominent defector, agreed that change is afoot in the North.

“People no longer do what they are told because they perceive the government propaganda as lies. And when they are told to do something, they refuse to do it,” he said.

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