AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 45/2004

North Korea: Joyful Dancing

The people of North Korea are not as submissive as they appear to be. Unnoticed by the outside world, strong opposition to the regime of dictator Kim Jong Il is beginning to appear.

On April 22, two trains loaded with chemicals exploded in the city of Ryongchon. Although 169 people died or were horribly disfigured, including a large number of children from a nearby school, no functionaries appeared in the city to comfort the injured and the relatives of the victims. President Kim Jong Il did not even condescend to issuing a telegram offering his condolences.

The state-owned news agency barely managed to devote a few lines to the catastrophe. Instead, the military in the capital celebrated the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the army and "Dear Leader" Kim with "joyful dancing" (the government's term).

No pity and no compassion for the suffering victims. The regime showed its true face - once again. A few hours prior to the tragedy, Kim's special train passed through the Ryongchon train station, returning from a trip to China. Is it possible that this was not an accident, but instead an attempt by opponents of the regime to blow up the dictator and his entourage? Until now, the world has been under the impression that the North Koreans, shielded from information about the outside world, weakened by hunger and subject to the tyranny of a foolproof monitoring system, are incapable of rebelling. After all, didn't they succumb to collective hysteria in 1994 when, after living through decades of his cult of personality, they were suddenly faced with the death of Kim's father, the founder of the state, "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung? But the 22.5 million people of this country are not as submissive as they appear to be. In the bitter years of the mid-1990s, when the regime allowed up to three million people to die from malnutrition and weakness, demonstrations repeatedly flared up against the country's bizarre ruler who, with his blow-dried hair and eccentric uniforms, is partial to preaching to his exhausted citizens in so-called spontaneous lectures. Slogans against the dictator ("Down with Kim Jong Il") appeared on railroad cars, overpasses and factory walls. Flyers condemning the dynasty's unbelievable ostentation were even posted outside the Kumsusan Mausoleum in Pyongyang, where the elder Kim's embalmed body lies in state. In a new, soon-to-be-published book about North Korea, Jasper Becker, 48, a British author and journalist living in Beijing, writes that factories, military units, and even entire towns revolted against the leadership in Pyongyang. In conversations with North Korean refugees, members of the South Korean intelligence service and scientists, Becker offers a deep, virtually unprecedented look into the secretive country. For example, Becker obtained details about the biggest labor demonstrations in North Korea's history, which took place in 1998 in the industrial city of Songrim. The protests began on a cold February morning after the public execution of eight men, all managers at the Hwanghae Iron and Steel Works. Their crime? In an effort to provide food for the workers and their families, they sold parts of the factory to Chinese businessmen.

Even though many of Songrim's inhabitants were starving at the time, the attempt to circumvent the defunct public supply system to obtain food was considered sabotage and treason. The deal with wealthy comrades from the other side of the border was quickly exposed when Chinese grain freighters were seen openly unloading cargo designated for Songrim at the port of Nampo. When the bodies of the eight functionaries, including two Central Committee members, fell into the dust, a woman in the crowd yelled: "They did not try to enrich themselves, but to help the workers. Shooting them is brutal." The courageous woman was one of the town's most respected citizens. As a nurse working in an elite hospital in Pyongyang, she had even taken care of the country's leaders. But that didn't protect her. Three soldiers grabbed the woman and shot her on the spot. The crowd, deeply fearful and horrified, quickly dispersed. A few hours later, however, the factory's employees stopped working. The peaceful protest was short-lived. The next morning, tanks broke through the factory gates and mowed down the demonstrators. According to eyewitness reports, hundreds lost their lives. Several days later, dozens of suspected agitators were shot, and countless so-called counter-revolutionaries and their families were taken away to labor camps. This was apparently not an isolated incident. Resentment against Kim is deeply entrenched in the population. Even a few of Kim's 450 hand-picked bodyguards, referred to as the "2-16 Unit," in honor of the dictator's birthday, apparently attempted to shoot their boss in the mid-1990s. Generals pushing for economic reforms planned a coup in 1992.

Their leaders included the vice-commander of an army unit in Hamhung and deputy general staff commander An Jong Ho. Both were exposed and executed; their cohorts managed to escape to Russia. In the bleak northern industrial city of Chongjin, several officers attempted to take control of the port and rocket bases in 1995, as well as to convince other military units to join them and march on Pyongyang. Other members of the military plotted to fire a shell at Kim's platform during a military parade in the capital. A military resistance group calling itself "The Supreme Council of National Salvation" threw flyers from trains and trucks, reading: "We appeal to the soldiers of the People's Army and to the people to join us in our fight." The omnipresent state security service exposed the plots. Kim himself has now constructed a protective wall around himself. He constantly moves from one residence to another, and his houses in Pyongyang are connected by a system of tunnels. An elite unit of 100,000 soldiers dedicated to Kim exists solely to protect him against conspiracies.

The uprisings happened at a time when even the privileged military was suffering and soldiers were starving in their barracks. During the 1990s, soldiers marauded throughout the country, looking for food. Most factories were shut down, the power was only on for a few hours each day, if at all, and water no longer flowed from faucets.

The situation was not solely attributable to droughts, as the government attempted to convince its subjects. The Kim dynasty had taken the country to the brink of ruin, because it refused to loosen the reins on its calcified planned economy and allow the people to farm small private lots. It was not until 1994, when the elite began to feel the effects of this mistake, that Kim asked for foreign aid. The famine did not begin in the early nineties, as is commonly assumed, but much earlier. An agricultural expert who fled the country began discovering the first signs of famine in 1987. But in a North Korea dominated by the cult of personality, no one dared inform old Kim Il Sung about the situation. By the time the "Great Leader" became aware of the problem, it was already too late. As Becker discovered, a serious disagreement between father and son must have occurred during this period. The patriarch was furious because his son had kept the economy crisis concealed from him for so long. Kim junior apparently opposed his father's plan to reform the economy based on the Chinese model, and to seek reconciliation with his South Korean compatriots. When Kim Il Sung died of heart failure in his villa on July 8, 1994, things may not have entirely above-board. Apparently, his son forbade doctors from entering his father's room for a long period of time. Two of the five helicopters that were to take the corpse and the dead man's entourage to Pyongyang crashed, killing the doctors and bodyguards on board. Other functionaries later disappeared without a trace.

While the North Koreans starved and the country descended ever more deeply into poverty, the younger Kim built at least ten palaces, complete with golf courses, stables and movie theaters. His garages are filled with luxury cars. The CIA estimates the family's wealth at four billion dollars, part of which is deposited in Swiss bank accounts.

Astonishing details about the lifestyle of the current president have now come to light. In the 1980s, he launched the "Project to Guarantee the Longevity of the Great and the Dear Leader." What this means, specifically, is that about 2,000 young women serve the leadership in "satisfaction teams" (sexual service) and "happiness teams" (massage).

Kim himself selected Ko Yong Hi, a dancer, as his life partner, even though he was already married at the time and also had a mistress. Ko bore him two sons and was given the honorary titles "Great Wife" and "Beloved Mother." She has long since died, supposedly of cancer. One of her sons may carry on the dynasty.

ANDREAS LORENZ

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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DER SPIEGEL 45/2004
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