North Korean propaganda may refer to the communist state as a workers paradise, but conditions this winter are unlikely to be particularly heavenly for people living there. The temperature in a lot of apartments will barely get past 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), some houses dont even have glass in the windows and few have central heating. In the coal-rich north of the country meanwhile, emaciated children with blackened, aged faces dig mine shafts with their bare hands and old women drag themselves into the mountains in a desperate search for anything edible. Some are so weak that they sit apathetically on the side of the road, next to bundles of twigs, leaves and roots. The state system for distributing meat, rice and vegetables collapsed long ago.
The 600 kilometer train journey from the northern border to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang often takes 60 hours. There are neither enough train engines nor enough fuel. Railway workers in the respective provinces often end up "borrowing" the trains for their own transport needs. And its not a good idea to fall sick in this strange empire, which is officially still ruled by a dead president -- the Eternal President, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. Because of the lack of medication, doctors are increasingly forced to operate on patients without anesthetic -- or to not operate at all. Broken bones are rarely put in casts.
But despite this misery, this drained and poverty-stricken country managed to pull off the extraordinary last week: On Monday morning the beloved Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il apparently set off an atomic bomb in a tunnel in the province of North Hamgyong -- just a few hundred kilometers from China, Russia and South Korea. According to North Koreas propaganda machine, this was an achievement only made possible thanks to homegrown wisdom and technology. The claim, though, is not entirely true: North Korean scientists were trained in the former Soviet Union, Russians built the reactor in Yongbyon, and it is thought that the centrifuges necessary to enrich the uranium used in the explosion come from Pakistan.
It appears to have been a relatively small explosion with a yield of less than a kiloton -- the atom bomb in Hiroshima in the summer of 1945 measured 15 kilotons. Now, scientists the world over have to carefully evaluate their seismic data to determine exactly what sort of explosion took place -- and whether it was originally meant to be much larger.
Just how far North Korea's nuclear weapons program has really come -- and just what is going on in the secret atomic base of Yongbyon, located some 100 kilometers from Pyongyang -- remains an open question. Neither the CIA nor the secret services from Russia and China seem to know. And the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency has had no access to the facility since 2003, when North Korea stepped out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
One of the last experts to have seen Yongbyon in operation described to SPIEGEL what the situation was like at the end of 2002: Its a massive site, with lots of very competent scientists -- on the one hand. But then there was a strange contradiction: We asked to see two buildings which we had not been allowed to inspect. After a great deal of hesitation the doors were opened. The scientists were using one hall to secretly distill Vodka. In the other they were producing cooking spoons out of aluminum. At the time, these things weren't available in North Korea. On the black market the goods could be sold, and provided an extra source of income for the scientists.
North Korea must be the only nuclear power in the world which is so poor that its top scientists are forced to spend their free time making kitchen utensils. It is not Kim Jong Il's megalomania nor his obsession with sovereignty which makes this regime so dangerous. Rather, its the country's failures and weaknesses.
Iran is also on the way to joining the club of nuclear nations. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims -- a benign smile on his lips -- that his country is only interested in the civil use of nuclear energy. North Korea and its dictator are different. Kim Jong Il is determined to build the bomb, and doesn't shy away from threatening the US along the way. America already has sanctions in place against North Korea and is now looking to up the pressure with a UN resolution -- in order, or so Kim suspects, to bring about the regimes collapse.
But the nuclear weapons test is also an affront to China, which acts as North Koreas protector and has helped the country survive so far. Which is why Beijings reaction at the moment is hardly any different to that of America. With North Korea dangerously lashing out, China is hardly in the mood to guarantee the country's safety.
The fall of the Soviet empire appears to have had no impact on this part of Asia. Since 1953, when the country was divided between north and south, the region has stood absolutely still politically. 1953 was also the turning point when Taiwan and South Korea were brought permanently into the American sphere of influence, and China became Asias first atomic power.
New arms race
But October 9 could well change a few things, and Kims bomb has the potential to shake up international relations in the region. South Korea and Japan could now start feeling the urge to develop nuclear weapons. The economic superpower China, which sees itself as the supervising force of the worlds largest continent, is now surrounded by four nuclear states: India, Pakistan, Russia and North Korea. And what about Taiwan? The lesson of the Iraq war is that atomic weapons are a deterrent and a guarantee of national sovereignty. But will communist China, which calls for Taiwan to be reunited with the mainland, allow that?
America is the anti-communist force to be reckoned with in Asia. About six months ago, the US signed an agreement with the nuclear power India, and has also entered into a shaky alliance with Pakistan. But in recent years, the US has been looking on helplessly at Kim's theatrics. Just like with Iran's Ahmadinejad, the only reason he is able to get away with such a performance is because America is weakened by the fiasco in Iraq.
The result is that what amounts to an autistic regime possesses a weapon that can wipe out whole cities and millions of people. Kim is an enigmatic leader in platform shoes with a weakness for Hollywood. The world has no idea whether he is acting rationally or if he is simply mad -- especially when he says things like if we lose, Ill destroy the world.
The bomb has allowed Kim to get the attention he thinks he deserves. In Tokyo, newspapers published special supplements focusing on the situation and television stations interrupted their normal schedules with regular news updates. Some channels showed pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to remind people of the tragedy of August 1945. Other programs interviewed the elderly parents of Megumi Yokata, who was abducted at the age of 13 and taken to North Korea -- a case symbolic for the inhumane system which Kim Jong Il inherited from his father.
Part II: A cloudy day for the Sunshine Policy
In Seoul meanwhile, just half an hours car drive from the 38th parallel demarcation line between North and South Korea, angry protests erupted onto the streets. A Cold War atmosphere hung over the city, with enraged passers-by burning North Korean flags. The nation-wide joy at the nomination of South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon as the new general secretary of the United Nations soon vanished. South Koreas so-called sunshine policy towards North Korea, where the per capita income is 20 times below that of the capitalist state, was originally conceived to slowly prepare the way for reunification. For now, this policy is consigned to the trash can.
As for China, as long as North Korea only thumbed its nose at America, Beijing could afford to ignore it. But now Kim is also starting to lead China up the garden path, and that doesnt sit well with Beijing. Chinas foreign ministry described the test as disgraceful. The media reported extensively about how angry Chinas leaders were, and in various chat forums people were actually allowed to criticize North Korea, a practice usually regarded by the Chinese government as sacrilegious. "No wonder North Korea is bankrupt, wrote one author, Ye Yonglie, in his blog. Atomic bombs are expensive.
North Korea can either have a future or it can have these weapons, said Christopher Hill, the American negotiator at the recent six party talks which convened to discuss North Koreas atomic ambitions. But unlike the case of Iran, there is no talk as yet of military intervention. In Washington recently -- especially with the congressional elections a mere three weeks away -- there has been a feeling of confrontation fatigue. The Pentagon has even withdrawn 30,000 US soldiers from South Korea and sent them to Iraq.
The United States of America doesn't have any intention to attack North Korea or to invade North Korea, said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bluntly last week. The White House let it be known that simply possessing the bomb will not necessarily be regarded as a serious threat -- but passing it on to terrorists will. It looks as though President George W. Bush is using the issue to steer policy towards a new doctrine. If North Korea, Iran or another country smuggles the bomb, or parts of it, to al-Qaida, there will be a price to pay. But only then.
Last week, the UN Security Council began discussing sanctions against North Korea. The 13 wide-ranging measures included travel restrictions for high-ranking Pyongyang officials, an embargo on luxury goods (which would only affect the nomenclature: at the beginning of the 1990s Kim Jong II was thought to be Hennessy Cognacs most important private customer), and above all restrictions for ships and airplanes carrying technology into South Korea.
But how can this surreal regime actually be punished any more? The measure which has hit Kim hardest so far was North Korea's exclusion from the international foreign currency markets -- a sanction levied by the US treasury on Sept. 23, 2005. That was four days after a joint declaration, in which America and North Korea agreed that as soon as Kim gives up his nuclear program, both sides would guarantee sovereignty and normalize relations. Kim, who tends towards paranoia anyway, saw this series of events as definitive proof that the US were simply pushing for regime change in North Korea. Washington on the other hand claimed the timing was pure coincidence.
No collapse but definite deterioration
But the KFR, or the Kim Family Regime as American officers in South Korea call the North, is now suffering from a severe dollar shortage. Millions are lost through drug trafficking, counterfeiting and money laundering. According to South Korean and Chinese experts, who have the best insight into the shadowy empire, North Korea may not on the brink of collapse, but there are increasing signs of deterioration. Kim depends on a small elite which can either prop him up or bring about his downfall. In North Korea this elite is mainly made up of the generals who enjoy the preferential treatment they in the form of luxury goods such as cars and DVD players -- paid for in hard currency.
With 1.1 million soldiers, statistically the country has the fourth largest army in the world. That sounds impressive, but it isnt. The armys equipment is pathetic and their conventional weapons outdated. Because fuel is in such short supply, fighter pilots are only allowed to fly for two hours a month. Food rations are so meager that whole units live off cabbage and other vegetables. The troops are grumbling but given Kims ingenious spy system, revolt is hardly an option.
In fact there is not much of a state this regime is capable of building up. Dictator Kim has just one dream left: being unassailable and self-assertive thanks to the atomic bomb. "Totalitarian regimes close to demise are apt to get panicky and do rash things. The weaker North Korea gets, the more dangerous it becomes," writes Korea expert Robert Kaplan in the American magazine Atlantic Monthly.
The last emperor?
So what will happen if the Kim Family Regime collapses? According to American experts, North Koreas potential for anarchy is every bit as great as that of Iraq -- and the danger of weapons of mass destruction turning up in North Korea is much larger. Apart from the bomb, Pyongyang also has a terrifying arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.
Kim has what Saddam didnt have.
China and South Korea are the least interested in the collapse of North Korea. Should that happen, a large chunk of the 23 million people living in North Korea would head south, and another group would take the northern route over the rivers Tumen and Yalu into China. There is a good chance that North Korea would soon be empty.
But for the US, which has 30,000 soldiers stationed on the 38th parallel, the situation would be a nightmare. The regime in Pyongyang could collapse without necessarily its army corps and brigades collapsing, Colonel David Maxwell, chief of staff of US Special Operations in South Korea, told the Atlantic Monthly. So we might have to mount a relief operation at the same time that wed be conducting combat ops. If there is anybody in the UN who thinks it will just be a matter of feeding people, theyre smoking dope.
Indeed, since the nuclear test, America is being forced to rely on Chinese goodwill more than ever -- and on China's ability to prevent anarchy in North Korea. According to secret service reports, China has thousands of defectors from North Korea on standby, ready to quickly infiltrate the country if necessary. The aim? To set up a Beijing-friendly regime. China is also interested in taking over the economically important area around the Tumen River, the region where most of North Koreas natural resources can be found -- such as graphite and brown coal -- as well as a number of harbors.
For years now the Chinese leadership has been setting an economic example for Kim. It is no coincidence that, during one of his secret state visits to China, Kim visited the stock market in Shanghai, the computer firm Lenovo and the southern special economic zone of Shenzhen. Kim gave in, slightly. He has allowed a private market to open in Pyongyang, although it is only open two hours a day. More than ever, China has to support Kims regime with rice, fertilizer, oil and diesel. South Korea regularly exports food and cement. But when famine or natural catastrophe strikes, the West steps in.
Just how this Absurdistan runs internally is hidden from the outside world. All we know about Kim is that he is passionate about films. His adoration for Elizabeth Taylor is notorious and he apparently cant get enough of James Bond. It is said that there is a documentary about the Last Days of the Ceauºescus which he watches repeatedly. Nobody knows, though, what Dear Leader is still capable of.
The starving and freezing North Koreans are light-years away from Kims world. They are fighting for sheer survival. Their neediness has forced them to develop other talents: Pensioners breed pigs and chickens on their balconies, farmers trade rice, cabbage and eggs on the small street markets, people set up soup kitchens in the their flats. The cause of this misery, according to Kims propaganda machine, is not Kim himself, his regime or the planned economy. It is the fault of the Americans, he says, who want nothing more than to wipe this hard-working and peace-loving people from the face of the earth.
By Erich Follath, Andreas Lorenz, Georg Mascolo, Gerhard Spörl, and Wieland Wagner.
Translated from the German by Damien McGuiness