Report By Geoffrey York
The Globe and Mail
From his balcony, Kim Jong-il surveyed the city. It was a rare public appearance by the chubby dictator who rules the world's most isolated state, but he maintained a godlike silence as he gazed out imperiously at the surreal celebration below.
As soon as he came into view, a choreographed display of ecstasy erupted from the 20,000 soldiers and spectators standing in precisely ordered rows in Pyongyang's central square. Wave after wave of frenzied cheers and hurrahs rolled across the square. Thousands of balloons soared into the sky. A brass band played a triumphant martial song, while soldiers screamed, "Long life, long life!"
Just as the orchestrated hysteria reached its peak, the crowds marched across the square in military-style formation with bouquets of artificial flowers, pledging their loyalty and waving frantically to the man they call their Dear Leader. Many of the people were sobbing rapturously as they turned their faces up toward him. Thousands of soldiers goose-stepped across the square with machine guns in their hands.
It was the 55th anniversary of the founding of North Korea, and the Dear Leader (a title bestowed by his father, Kim Il-sung, the self-proclaimed Great Leader, who died in 1994) watched the two-hour parade with satisfaction.
At 61, he wears a bouffant hairstyle and elevator shoes to add to his potbellied 5-foot-3-inch frame. In public, he tries to appear majestic, but in private he is said to be a man of carnal appetites, famed for his love of Italian cuisine, rock lobster, French wine and cognac. He once brought in two chefs from Milan to make pizza in Italian-made ovens, and is rumoured to be the world's single biggest buyer of his favourite cognac, Hennessy Paradis, which costs 0 a bottle.
But as his cameras recorded the anniversary spectacle for broadcast that night, an uglier scene was unfolding in many other places across the capital.
At a highway median near a luxury hotel, an old man and a tiny girl were on their hands and knees, foraging for edible grass and herbs to supplement their meagre diets. The painfully thin girl, who seemed about five years old, was wearing a flowered dress as she toiled to gather the grass in a large bag.
On the outskirts of Pyongyang, men and women were trudging out of the city with empty bags on their backs, while others were walking back from the countryside, laden with grass, leaves, herbs, tree bark and other "wild food" that has become a staple of daily survival in this impoverished nation.
I witnessed scenes such as this on each of the eight days I spent in North Korea this month. An Orwellian society, it remains gripped in a personality cult of Stalinist proportions, with its dwindling resources diverted to pay for a massive army and a nuclear-weapons program that terrifies its neighbours.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of ordinary North Koreans live in hunger and misery. For most of the 23 million people in the world's last totalitarian state, the national holiday last week was little more than an added opportunity to scavenge. Millions of malnourished people here are dependent on "wild food." They mix it with ground wheat or corn husks in a gruel or soup, even though it causes painful digestive disorders.
I came across dozens of people foraging. A relief worker from the World Food Program, who travelled across North Korea for several weeks this summer, said he saw hundreds. As many as three million people have died from starvation since the mid-1990s, according to relief-agency estimates.
Journalists rarely get to visit North Korea, especially since the nuclear crisis began last year, but I gained entry as part of a tour group from China. It was an extraordinary opportunity to travel across several regions, including provincial cities and rural districts that journalists seldom see at the best of times.
Pyongyang is a 90-minute flight from Beijing aboard a shabby Russian-made Ilyushin jet flown by the state-owned Air Koryo. The link between the two socialist capitals is one of North Korea's few with the outside world, and yet the route supports only two flights a week. Most passengers are diplomats, government officials and visiting delegations such as a Shanghai ballet troupe. The sense of crossing an iron curtain into an isolated land was reinforced by the stern-faced flight attendants and the martial music emitted by the overhead speakers as our plane readied for takeoff.
One of the few dignitaries sent to help mark the national holiday was on my flight: a vice-president of another repressive state, Zimbabwe, who was greeted in Pyongyang with full military honours, including a army brass band. It seemed to be a symbol of solidarity between the two pariahs.
We landed at a near-empty airport, where most of Air Koryo's tiny fleet of passenger jets had been grounded long ago. My cellphone was tagged and confiscated as soon as I arrived. Known for its extreme xenophobia and paranoia, the regime goes to enormous lengths to prohibit any independent contacts ó including cellphone calls ó between North Korea and the outside world.
A government minder bundled us into a van. Our first glimpse of Pyongyang revealed a city of wide avenues and grandiose Stalinist high-rises, which, on closer inspection, often seemed to be crumbling. Few cars were on the streets. Long lines of ordinary people were trekking along the main roads, averting their eyes, afraid of arrest if they made any contact with foreigners. Sometimes they stole quick glances at us with a mixture of fear and fascination in their eyes.
Our seven-member group merited three minders. They monitored our movements, accompanied us everywhere and guarded our hotel exits at night. When our vehicle halted at highway rest stops, they shooed away any North Koreans who happened to be there. If we wandered off on our own, they would chase us back. But their vigilance wasn't perfect. By dodging them from time to time and staying ever alert to the passing scene between tour stops, I got a clear sense of what happens to a country that sacrifices the health of its people for the sake of military might.
Half a century after the end of the Korean War, the North is still operating on a constant war footing. All of its scarce resources are focused on military power. Even its rank-and-file soldiers are suffering hardships because their human needs are less important than Kim Jong-il's relentless ambition for ever-greater missiles and nuclear weapons.
With more than one million troops, North Korea's army is the fifth largest in the world. There were hundreds of soldiers on every major highway ó but almost always on foot, trudging endlessly along the side of the road. Sometimes they begged for rides from passing cars. If they were lucky, they travelled on bicycles or tractor-pulled wagons or open-backed trucks.
Many of the soldiers were short and thin. Some looked like 14-year-old boys, although in fact they are 20 or older. Because of widespread stunting caused by malnutrition, the North Korean military has lowered the minimum height requirement for new recruits to a mere 4-foot-10.
Even at official highway checkpoints, the soldiers and police rarely had more than a bicycle. They gratefully accepted gifts of cigarettes and chewing gum from the Chinese tourists.
While the soldiers are subsisting precariously, the situation for civilians is much more dangerous. The economy has collapsed since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the World Food Program estimates that 51 per cent of the population is acutely or chronically malnourished. The rate of stunting ó caused by lack of food ó is "very high," according to United Nations criteria.
I saw few signs of economic activity anywhere. Most factories are closed and there were only two or three sites of construction activity, including the repairs a military crew was making to a giant 12-metre-high tank barricade on the main highway between Pyongyang and the South Korean border.
The skyline of Pyongyang is dominated by a massive 105-storey pyramid-shaped hotel, abandoned in the early 1990s after years of construction. A rusting crane still sits on the top of the pyramid, a symbol of failed ambitions.
Fuel shortages are so severe that vehicles are banned from main arteries of Pyongyang on Sundays. Gasoline prices have reached (U.S.) per litre, compared with less than 40 cents in neighbouring China. This has prompted some Koreans to convert to the use of firewood as fuel. I could see thick smoke pouring from the burners on the backs of their decrepit trucks.
Buses and trams were jammed. People waited in huge queues at every bus stop in Pyongyang. Yet the major intercity highways, up to 10 lanes wide, were virtually empty. On most roads, more cars were broken down than functioning. I saw flames leaping from the engine of one stalled truck as its passengers dashed around frantically.
The 10-lane Youth Hero motorway between Pyongyang and the western city of Nampo was built by an army of 50,000 labourers in the late 1990s as a showcase project. It had perhaps two or three cars travelling anywhere on its 50-kilometre span. But in a stunning waste of manpower, dozens of people were trying to tidy up the empty highway, sweeping away the dead leaves that had fallen on the shoulder.
On the sides of the highways, many people were desperately flagging for rides from the occasional passing car. They waved packs of cigarettes as bribes.
Some highways consist of little more than concrete slabs. Road repairs are performed by labourers with few modern tools. I saw one road gang in which an old woman was struggling to lift a heavy rock.
In the rural regions, there were few tractors and little mechanization. Everything seemed to be done by hand. Labourers manage most farm work on foot, sometimes with wooden carts and plows pulled by oxen or themselves. In five days of travelling outside Pyongyang, I saw only three or four tractors and a few trucks. Some farmers led a single sheep or pig on a leash. On rivers and lakes, no motorized boats were visible ó almost every boat seemed to be powered by rowing.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea lost its major source of external support. Severe isolation and a stubborn insistence on self-reliance (known as the Juche philosophy) have worsened the stagnation. Per-capita incomes in North Korea are one-12th of the level in South Korea. Electricity production has plunged to one-third of the level of a decade ago.
"The vicious cycle of inherited hunger is being reinforced," Gerald Bourke, a spokesman for the WFP's operation in North Korea, wrote in a recent commentary. "Moderately malnourished children are becoming severely malnourished, and therefore more susceptible to sickness and disease. Underfed women are giving birth to smaller babies, and are less able to breast-feed them."
While the farm crisis today is not as severe as during the 1996-98 famine, the situation is exacerbated by a decline in foreign food aid. Donor fatigue and political disputes have led to a sharp plunge in food contributions from traditional donors such as Japan. More than two-thirds of North Koreans depend on government food rations, which provide less than 300 grams a day per person ó barely half of the international standard for survival.
Desperation is visible everywhere. Because of the danger of theft by hungry villagers, elevated huts have been built in cornfields, just big enough to shelter a guard who can protect the corn from theft at night.
Across the countryside, people wash their clothes outside in cold rivers and carry heaps of twigs or branches for firewood. Deforestation is becoming a serious problem as trees are chopped down for fuel or sale. Crops are planted on every available space, including the steep sides of mountains ó but not a single fence is visible, since private property is illegal.
In every town and village, the newest and shiniest object is always a propaganda billboard or a 20-metre-high obelisk bearing a patriotic slogan engraved in large red characters. They tower overhead, dominating the landscape and creating the impression that ordinary dwellings are huddling at the feet of the Dear Leader.
Pyongyang, with 2.5 million residents, is supposed to be a privileged place, somewhere people need special permission to live, where most residents are loyal to the state. Yet even here the poverty and scarcity are obvious.
After sunset, the capital is pitch black, aside from a handful of brightly floodlit propaganda billboards and monuments. The few streetlights are too dim to penetrate the darkness. The city at night is deadly quiet, except for occasional propaganda announcements from loudspeakers.
The regime endlessly boasts that North Korea is a "people's paradise." But when I walked through the city at midnight one night, I saw homeless people sleeping outdoors on the streets and park benches. During daytime, I saw people wearily pulling carts or hauling heavy bags by hand. Taxis are almost non-existent. Apartment buildings are shabby and grimy. There are shortages of hot water and running water. Electricity supplies are tightly rationed in the winter especially.
In Pyongyang and other major cities, most shop shelves seem to be half-empty. Supplies are meagre, and there are never any display windows. Outside their apartment buildings, people squat behind small boxes, trying to make money by selling such wares as cigarette packs and homegrown vegetables to passers-by. These are apparently the first signs of private enterprise in North Korea, although the government minders prohibited us from taking a closer look.
If this country is a paradise, it seems to be a paradise only for those with high-level connections. Even the minders admitted that there is a big gap between rich and poor. Only a tiny privileged elite with links to the regime are allowed to have cellphones or Internet access, for example. One of our minders told me that he hopes to get an e-mail address next year for the first time, but he acknowledged that "technical problems" are still delaying the moment when ordinary North Koreans might finally have access to the Internet.
Foreign tourists are provided with much more generous food allocations than ordinary North Koreans. The tour group enjoyed lavish nine-course banquets ó something of an obscenity in a country where people are eating grass.
In an effort to attract Chinese tourists, who are emerging as a key source of hard currency revenue for the North Korean regime, the government has opened a cluster of luxury services in the 47-storey Yanggakdo hotel in Pyongyang ó including a casino, an expensive Chinese restaurant and a sauna. Ordinary North Koreans are allowed to enter none of these.
One day, I caught a glimpse of North Korea's affluent elite on the eastern sea coast near the port of Wonsan. Two government Mercedes-Benz limousines stopped at a beach resort and several pudgy officials ó accompanied by a jewellery-clad woman ó marched into the resort. They ordered a meal of fresh crab. After eating their fill, they sauntered into the sea for a swim, while their chauffeurs waited outside.
Aside from the Great Leader himself, they were the only fat people I saw in my entire visit.
To finance its crab meals, cognac and pizza chefs ó and to pay for its nuclear program ó the regime is desperately seeking hard currency, in the process exhibiting a belligerence that has jeopardized the world's stability.
With few other products to sell, it has turned increasingly to the export of contraband such as missiles and drugs. The regime earns hundreds of millions of dollars every year by selling missiles and other military hardware to repressive countries such as Iran, Libya, Pakistan and Syria. And in April, officials in Australia seized a massive shipment of heroin ó 125 kilograms ó from a North Korean vessel.
Another destabilizing factor is the danger of a potential flood of refugees. China has announced that it will deploy its military to guard its border with North Korea, but an estimated 300,000 refugees have already slipped across the border into northeastern China. (My own apartment compound in Beijing is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence because of China's fear that North Korean refugees will seek asylum in the diplomatic missions it contains.)
Yet despite the widespread hunger and malnutrition, the totalitarian system is showing no signs of cracking. I saw no evidence of any dissent or protest among ordinary people. Foreign politicians often assume that the regime of Kim Jong-il must inevitably collapse soon, but in reality the brainwashing and the domestic propaganda system are so extensive that most North Koreans simply cannot imagine any alternative to the existing system.
"Few countries in the history of mankind have collapsed simply because of the deprivation of people's basic needs," said the University of Georgia political scientist Han Park, who has travelled to North Korea many times in the past 20 years.
"In North Korea, economic hardships for the people will not undermine the regime itself," he wrote in a recent book. "The overwhelmingly submissive and compliant attitude displayed by the people at all levels of society has resulted from a consistent and carefully engineered process of lifelong political socialization."
As if to prove his prediction, on the eve of the national holiday, I saw hundreds of North Koreans shuffling obediently through the darkness of a Pyongyang evening to lay bouquets of flowers at the foot of a giant propaganda billboard of Kim Il-sung. The floodlit billboard was like a lurid beacon, one of the few sources of light in a shrouded city. Below the portrait, the ordinary people were briefly illuminated. Then they placed their bouquets and shuffled off into the darkness, accepting their fate.
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