Chairman Kim’s dissolving kingdom
Michael Sheridan, Rajin, North Korea
FAR across the frozen river two figures hurried from the North Korean shore, slip-sliding on the ice as they made a break for the Chinese riverbank to escape a regime that, by many accounts, is now entering its death throes.
It was a desperate risk to run in the stark glare of the winter sunshine. We had just seen a patrol of Chinese soldiers in fur-lined uniforms tramping along the snowy bank, their automatic rifles slung ready for action.
NI_MPU('middle');Police cars swept up and down the road every 10 or 15 minutes, on the look-out for refugees. A small group of Chinese travellers in our minibus, some of whom turned out to have good reasons to be discreet, pretended not to notice.
The two made it to shelter and we ploughed on towards a border post that offered us a rare opportunity to cross into the northeastern corner of the last Stalinist state, posing as would-be investors in an experimental free trade zone.
We had already witnessed one sign that North Korea’s totalitarian system is dissolving, even as its leaders boast of owning nuclear weapons to deter their enemies.
“It’s just like the Berlin Wall,” Pastor Douglas Shin, a Christian activist, said by telephone from Seoul. “The slow-motion exodus is the beginning of the end.”
In interviews for this article over many months, western policymakers, Chinese experts, North Korean exiles and human rights activists built up a picture of a tightly knit clan leadership in Pyongyang that is on the verge of collapse.
Some of those interviewed believe the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il, has already lost his personal authority to a clique of generals and party cadres. Without any public announcement, governments from Tokyo to Washington are preparing for a change of regime.
The death of Kim’s favourite mistress last summer, a security clampdown on foreign aid workers and a reported assassination attempt in Austria last November against the leader’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, have all heightened the sense of disintegration.
The Japanese intelligence agency, in an unclassified report issued on December 24, referred to “signs of instability” inside the political establishment and predicted a feud among the elite as they strive to seize power from Kim.
Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s ambitious brother-in-law, was purged from party office after he tried to build up a military faction to put his own son in power. Mystery surrounds the fate of Vice-Marshal Jo Myong-rok, the soldier once sent as Kim’s emissary to meet Bill Clinton in the White House.
The dictator’s favoured heir apparent, his son Kim Jong-chol, 23, who was educated in Geneva, is reported to have staged a shoot-out inside a palace with Kim Jang-hyun, 34, an illegitimate son of Kim Il-sung, father of the dictator and founder of the dynasty.
Rumours of rivalry and bloodshed have multiplied since the Dear Leader’s last meetings with dignitaries from Russia and China last September. Since then Kim has vanished from view.
Analysts in Seoul say that in recent propaganda pictures the bouffant-haired dictator is wearing the same clothes as in photographs from two years ago, suggesting that they may have been taken then. Observers await Kim’s official birthday, February 16, to see if the state media accord him the usual fawning adulation. According to exiles, North Korean agents in Beijing and Ulan Bator are frantically selling assets to raise cash — an important sign, says one activist, because “the secret police can always smell the crisis coming before anybody else”.
Once we had crossed the steel bridge into this hermetic member of President George W Bush’s “axis of evil”, much of what we saw suggested that the party’s reign is a facade.
As we shivered in the frontier post the portraits of Kim and his late father, Kim Il-sung, stared down from the wall as if nothing had changed. But the cult of the Kim dynasty, its “perfect” theory of Juche
— patriotic self-reliance — and the utopian society of which the official guides boast are visibly breaking down.
NI_MPU('middle');Word has spread like wildfire of the Christian underground that helps fugitives to reach South Korea. People who lived in silent fear now dare to speak about escape. The regime has almost given up trying to stop them going, although it can savagely punish those caught and sent back.
“Everybody knows there is a way out,” said a woman, who for obvious reasons cannot be identified but who spoke in front of several witnesses.
“They know there is a Christian network to put them in contact with the underground, to break into embassies in Beijing or to get into Vietnam. They know, but you have to pay a lot of money to middlemen who have the Christian contacts.”
Her knowledge was remarkable. North Korean newspapers are stifled by state control. Televisions receive only one channel which is devoted to the Dear Leader’s deeds. Radios are fixed to a single frequency. For most citizens the internet is just a word.
Yet North Koreans confirmed that they knew that escapers to China should look for buildings displaying a Christian cross and should ask among Korean speakers for people who knew the word of Jesus.
“The information blockade is like a dam and when it bursts there will be a great wave,” said Shin, the crusading pastor.
Here in the north of the country, faith, crime and sheer cold are eroding the regime’s grip at a speed that may surprise the CIA’s analysts: facts that should give ammunition to conservatives in Washington who call for a hardline policy.
Bush’s re-election dealt a blow to Kim, 62, who had gambled on a win by John Kerry, the Democratic candidate. Kim used a strategy of divide and delay to drag out nuclear talks with the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea through 2004.
Kim lost his bet and now faces four more years of Bush, who says that he “loathes” the North Korean leader and has vowed to strip him of atomic weapons.
The regime is fighting to save itself from subversion. Its agents kidnapped Kim Dong-shik, a South Korean missionary, from the turbulent Chinese border town of Yanji in 2000. Last week the South Koreans demanded a new investigation: the clergyman has never been seen again.
The secret police cannot staunch the word of the gospel. Two of our party turned out to be Christian businessmen who had come from China carrying wads of cash. Korean-language Bibles have been smuggled in by the hundreds.
The veneer of communist propaganda is still kept up. “There is no need for religion in North Korea,” said our loyal tour guide. “Personally, I believe in the Korean Workers’ party and our Dear Leader.” Fifty miles south of the border we watched as schoolchildren obediently filed out in a shrieking gale to follow their teachers in pilgrimage along the seashore to a shrine to Kim Il-sung, who is still revered as the “Great Leader”.
Lined up outside a fisherman’s cottage where the Great Leader stayed in 1953, they listened to a revolutionary harangue by a woman teacher with more attention than most seven to 12-year-olds might muster. They had marched two miles, wrapped up like small bundles against a wind that blew off the Sea of Japan so bitterly that the spray froze on the lines of the fishing boats. It was –15C that day.
These are children whose average weight and height after years of malnutrition are 20% less than those of their equals in South Korea, according to the United Nations. Their rations were recently cut from 300g to 250g of staple food a day.
NI_MPU('middle');Yet the proverbial hardiness of the Koreans — a quality that amazed British soldiers who fought in these conditions from 1950 to 1953 to keep South Korea out of Kim Il-sung’s hands — is no longer enough to make up for his son’s deficiencies.
Two years ago the younger Kim introduced free market reforms in a half-hearted attempt to restart an economy that has been dying since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Rajin, a deepwater port that is open to foreign trade, is supposed to be a showpiece of the new economy in the potentially rich northeast next to China and Russia.
However, here we saw economic chaos that has led to unheard-of social disorder. At the central market child beggars chased us along alleys of shoddy Chinese goods, past stalls heaped with decaying fish. A group of dead-eyed teenagers kicked and shoved the younger boys to go after the foreigners. The guides hastily warned us against robbers.
To most North Koreans the prices must have seemed insane. A crab caught locally cost more than a driver’s monthly wages of £1.40. A Chinese cotton vest cost two weeks’ money.
Still hundreds of people jammed the officially sanctioned market and dozens of illegal vendors froze outside as they touted vegetables, clothes and hunks of rancid meat.
No official intervened to stop the illicit trade. Judging by the aggressive pushing and arguing over the goods, there might have been a riot if they had. A few North Koreans are clearly making money. Many more, though, are falling into penury.
Later we were taken for lunch to a state restaurant where lukewarm fish, vegetables and rice were produced from a chilly kitchen. There were iron bars on the windows and a heavy padlock on the door to prevent looting. Marxists, if there were any remaining in North Korea, might have described the situation as prerevolutionary.
Last April an unknown number of North Koreans died in an explosive fireball that wrecked the railway station at Ryongchon, near the Chinese border, on the day when Kim’s personal train was due to pass through.
Foreign diplomats initially accepted the regime’s explanation of an accident. But two well informed ambassadors in Pyongyang say that they now have doubts.
In a telltale measure, frontier guards ordered us to leave all mobile phones at the Chinese border post — rumour has it that the Ryongchon blast was triggered by a mobile phone.
An attempt to kill Kim would come as no surprise. Defections by party officials and army officers have increased as the elite senses that it faces disaster. Japan is considering economic sanctions to retaliate for the kidnappings of its nationals by North Korea and some American policymakers think that the regime should be pushed to the point of self-destruction. Nonetheless, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, wants to keep pressurising North Korea through negotiations. “The military option is not on the table for the United States,” said an American aid official who is up-to-date with her thinking.
To the children of the No 5 junior school in Rajin, that would come as a surprise. Their classrooms boast lurid posters of American marines murdering Koreans and greedy warmongers ganging up on a proud nation, as though Kennedy and Khruschev still held the world in thrall.
Their teeth chattering with cold, the children staged a classic communist song-and-dance routine for visitors, the boys clad in miniature military uniforms in tribute to Kim’s Songun
— army first — policy.
NI_MPU('middle');Paranoia and brainwashing remain the regime’s most effective tools. Yet even as it tries to fight off God it has made its peace with Mammon.
On a freezing night when Rajin was sunk in gloom, its oil refineries empty, its power stations inert, one building stood ablaze with lights on the bleak seashore northeast of the city. It was a casino, where slate-faced Chinese gamblers squandered thousands of dollars at the baccarat table while impassive guards scrutinised them for any hints of dodgy play. Given the record of North Korean’s secret police it was hard to imagine anyone daring to cheat.
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