MOUNT KUMKANG, North Korea — It was the end of the evening; our group of American editors had finished a traditional North Korean dinner of cold buckwheat-noodle soup and sliced wild boar that was barbecued at the table. As the waitresses cleared the dishes and prepared the restaurant for the next day’s meals, the formality eased. The last customers of the night, we struck up conversations with the young servers as they cleaned the tables and ushered us into the adjacent bar for nightcaps. Some of them spoke a little English; we asked where they were from — some said local villages, some the capital, Pyongyang — and we shared wallet photos of spouses or children.
Along with the economic liberalization in North Korea has come a crackdown on almost everything else.
A couple of the waitresses were taking turns singing to the karaoke machine in the bar, and our interpreter asked them to perform some of their favorites. The songs, set to a modern pop beat, were lively, and one of the women had a wonderfully clear voice. She took up the microphone and sang a soaring, melodramatic ballad that was accompanied by video in the karaoke machine that featured the snow-capped mountains of this eastern region of North Korea. The scenery was beautiful, and so in a rugged and unadorned way was she — without makeup and dressed in a simple all-red uniform decorated only by a breast pin of Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader and founder of North Korea. And in this setting in the craggy Kumkang mountains, the song was appropriately unsubtle and strong.
The woman, probably in her 20s, belted out this song with confidence and emotion. You could see her eyes welling up during the high points and, at the end, a tear touched her cheek. When we asked what the song was about, our interpreter said that the title was something like “May the Dear Leader’s feet never touch the frozen snow.” Like most of the other songs on the karaoke machine, this was a paean to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, son of Kim Il Sung. But that in no way diminished the ardor with which this woman sang. None of us had any doubt that she saw her country’s dictator as the benevolent center of her universe. She was utterly sincere.
And therein lies the challenge for the United States and the world: how to move the planet’s last Stalinist state and its slavish and idolatrous mentality, as well as its backward and stagnant economy, into something resembling the 21st century. For South Korea, the undertaking is even harder: how to one day absorb its neighbor to the north without the wrenching social and economic dislocation that still bedevils Germany today, nearly 20 years after communist East Germany collapsed.
The task is formidable.
Beyond the Green Fence
After spending 10 days in prosperous South Korea interviewing leaders from all facets of society — artists and politicians, Christian ministers and Buddhist monks, professors and business executives, even a panel of defectors from North Korea — and then passing 30 hours in North Korea, and in one of the more Westernized areas of the country at that, it was apparent that the gap between the two Koreas is stark and sad.
The Mount Kumkang resort in North Korea, some 9 miles north of the still-mined and concertina-wired demilitarized zone, is operated by Hyundai Asan — a division of the huge South Korean conglomerate that also builds cars. In look and feel, the resort resembles any other mountain luxury spot around the world — upscale, multistory hotels, a hot springs spa, a performing arts center, hiking paths, bus tours to the mountains and lakes of the region, and gift shops and restaurants. But all of it, including the highways to the South Korean border, is surrounded by a see-through green fence that neither the tourists here, nor the North Koreans who live just outside it, dare to cross. If they do, the soldiers posted at every crossroads, each armed with a red flag, a whistle, and sometimes a Kalashnikov rifle, will be sure to usher the offenders immediately to the proper side.
And the tourists here, most of them South Koreans, but also a good number of Taiwanese and other Asian visitors, can see clearly through the green fence to the other side.
And what one sees isn’t always scenic. Outside of the Kumkang nature preserve, where Asian pines stand picturesque and plentiful, the rolling hills of North Korea are denuded of trees and most other vegetation from villagers foraging for fuel; many of the roads are dirt; the village houses and buildings are peeling of paint and plaster and few have window glass, just holes. The only motorized vehicles belong to the military. Most everyone else bicycles or walks. The fields have few tractors or draft animals, mainly people with hoes — even the omnipresent soldiers can be seen tilling fields near their barracks with hand tools. At night, the villages are virtually unlit; the only sign of life is the smoke from cooking fires. In the village nearest the resort hotel, just one building is lighted — the dormitory for the circus acrobats who perform stunning routines here once or twice a day.
Hyundai Asan does its best to make Mount Kumkang work smoothly and look like a normal resort, but this is not Disney World. Although 1.7 million tourists have visited since the resort opened in 1998, North Korea’s repressive ways seep in through the green fence.
At the South Korean customs departure center, a pleasant and efficient modern glass-and-steel building, Hyundai Asan employees warn in no uncertain terms what someone cannot bring into the North. They also supply plastic bags to store your “contraband” at the border station until you return. No newspapers or magazines; no books on history or anything having to do with North or South Korean politics. No cellphones, laptops, BlackBerrys, or voice recorders. No DVD players. Small handheld digital cameras are OK, but nothing with a lens of any magnification, and no binoculars. And the basic rule for photography in North Korea? Assume you cannot take pictures until someone tells you that you can. And, by the way, don’t point at anything — it makes the North Koreans very nervous.
The regimentation, too, is ever-present. Tourist buses must leave the South Korean departure station all at once and arrive at the North Korean border at an appointed time, usually in a convoy of about 15 buses. If you miss your appointment, you have to wait and join the next convoy. When entering North Korean immigration control — a series of low, modest, military-style buildings — all tourists have to line up in order according to the number on their temporary visas. Customs officials wear military garb, some of it a little threadbare and ill-fitting with tarnished buttons, but they are efficient and will search your bags thoroughly if you do anything suspicious. One tourist who took a quick photo in the immigration area was whistled to a stop by a soldier, separated from his wife, and searched, although he wasn’t held for long.
Once safely through North Korean customs, you are greeted by a colorfully dressed and courteous Hyundai Asan guide (all of them are from South Korea) who boards your bus, with walkie-talkie in hand. After electronic squawking among the guides to ensure that everyone is ready, and after everyone is reminded not to take any photos until we arrive at the Kumkang resort, a North Korean military escort swings into place at the head of the convoy and the buses depart en masse. They quickly accelerate to a good clip on the modern highway, which runs like a neat black ribbon through winter-brown fields and dry rice paddies and passes by numerous military outposts and lonely soldiers positioned every half-mile or so, sometimes in pillboxes, sometimes just standing at attention by themselves in a field — all of them watching the tourist road and the bus convoys that are its only traffic.
As the convoy nears the resort, the gray mountains loom ahead, Grand Teton-like in their angular cragginess. After checking into the hotel, with its courteous but perhaps too numerous and too solicitous staff — someone always seems to be watching you — it’s time for the first highland excursion, a hike to famed Lake Samilpo, known for its tranquil setting and perfect reflectivity. Except this is no carefree stroll through mountain paths to a lovely lake.
No, the same bus convoy gathers in the hotel parking lot, where everyone boards, the walkie-talkies screech once again, and we are escorted a mile or so to the trail head. We are then released in one giant wave. Imagine going on a hike with 300 or 400 other people you don’t know, given a fixed time to be back, and ordered to walk on a paved path with escorts the whole way. Each time a smaller, more attractive path beckons, a Hyundai Asan employee or North Korean soldier waves you back, saying you can’t go that way. The hike felt more like a forced mass march.
But Lake Samilpo is as tranquil as the ancient Chinese and Korean painters depicted it. Eerily still, silvery and mirror-like with its reflections of the surrounding mountains and pines, the lake sits just inland from what the Koreans call the East Sea and is dotted with small, ancient, tiled-roof temples on its rocky islands. Except that at almost every scenic vista or promontory, or upon every towering rock face, something mars the ageless beauty. That something is permanent propaganda, more hosannas to the Great or Dear Leaders and their wives. At the summits, the propaganda consists of large carved rock tablets, etched in socialist red Korean hangeul characters. The smaller print usually says that Kim Il Sung visited this place; the larger that Kim Jong Il did likewise some years later. On the cliff faces that surround the lake are huge, colorless, but deeply carved slogans honoring the Kims or the North Korean self-reliance philosophy of juche.
Along the hiking trail and at the midpoint, North Koreans set out folding tables to sell trinkets and keepsakes and skewers of barbecued meat along with the sweet North Korean beer. Just like at the restaurants and karaoke bars in the main part of the resort, the sellers are young, attractive women in red or black uniforms, always helpful and courteous. And watching the women, usually at a distance, sometimes close by, are their North Korean managers; most of the time these are much older men, occasionally women, usually in their 50s. We took them to be party cadres, dressed as they were in gray Mao-like suits, chain-smoking cigarettes, and sporting hard-bitten miens. They always kept one eye on their charges, and the other on the tourists. They missed nothing, and spoke with no one. And they were always there.
We never saw young North Korean men working anywhere in the resorts. The best explanations were that they were all in the nearly 1 million-man military; or perhaps the government calculates that young men exposed to too much foreign influence might defect — most North Korean defectors, all of whom escape through China, are young men in their 20s and 30s.
Dr. Stephen Linton probably knows more about conditions in North Korea than most Western intelligence agents. He heads the Eugene Bell Foundation, a humanitarian group that has been providing medical assistance to 40 hospitals and clinics in North Korea since 1997. Linton, an American, represents the fourth generation of Bell’s descendants to live and work in Korea — his great-grandfather Eugene Bell came to Korea in 1895 as a missionary. The foundation is funded about equally by the South Korean government, Korean-Americans in the United States, and church and civic groups in South Korea. Linton’s work takes him frequently into North Korea, where he focuses on treating the No. 1 health problem there: tuberculosis, a disease that killed more Koreans in the 20th century than all of Korea’s wars of the era.
Linton is careful to describe conditions in the North without passing judgment — he recounts plenty of good-news stories about dedicated medical professionals who provide extraordinary care under nearly impossible conditions. And he tempers his analysis of Kim Jong Il’s government, which could easily bar him from his work if it became offended.
North Korea, Linton says, “is a society that has run out of gas.” His descriptions of conditions in the country’s hospitals and health clinics are nothing short of harrowing: Much of the equipment is 50 years old and either nonfunctional or falling apart. Doctors often perform surgery without electricity — that means no heat or light except what comes in through the windows, and no suction machines to clear away blood. If doctors are lucky, they have a hand-cranked generator for electricity, but its operation requires another staff member to crank it nonstop throughout the surgery. Patients are strapped down tightly because with anesthetics in short supply and machines unreliable, they often wake up in the middle of surgery. Many procedures are done without surgical gloves. Surgical instruments are often handmade and difficult to sharpen, so surgeons spend an inordinate amount of time just opening patients up. Doctors plant cotton next to clinics so they can harvest it for bandages and swabs. They use homemade splints for broken bones. Doctors in some areas have reverted to fluoroscopy because they don’t have modern X-ray machines. That means they stand in front of their patients with an X-ray-sensitive plate, and as they are both irradiated, the physician reads the plate. Doctors, as a result, often die young of radiation sickness. And more and more, Linton says, “North Korean doctors are falling back onto traditional medicine because they don’t have the tools for modern medicine.”
Glimmers Of Change
Still, Linton, like almost everyone else interviewed about North Korea, does not expect the country to collapse. He cites several reasons. For one, Koreans, North or South, are tremendously resourceful people who “make an art form out of doing a lot with just a little,” Linton said. Moreover, North Koreans “have a capacity for enduring pain that is unbelievable.” For example, doctors in North Korea sometimes inject anti-TB medication directly into the lungs of patients with advanced TB. They use 9-inch needles, and the patients are not anesthetized. They never scream or cry out in pain, Linton says. Similarly, when he vaccinates North Korean children, not a single one cries or complains.
Part of the explanation for this restraint is juche, the ingrained ideology of independence and self-reliance that is part and parcel of the North Korean regime and worldview. North Koreans accept that for most of their short history they have had to go it alone in the face of hostile powers and neighbors. “North Korea is a society that sees itself under siege; they see themselves as a last bastion of Marxism in a sea of capitalism,” Linton said. “It’s them against the world.”
But the final reason Linton doesn’t expect North Korea to collapse any time soon (and South Korean analysts of all stripes agree) is that North Korea finally is beginning to change.
South Korean government officials like to tell an old one-liner about Kim Jong Il and his flirtation with free markets: “When it comes to capitalism, Kim is a window-shopper, not a buyer.” But since taking power after his father’s death in 1994, Kim has traveled to Russia, China, and Vietnam, looking closely at how those countries have instituted free-market reforms. He may have hesitated for a few years, but these days Kim is buying.
Beginning in 2002, Kim allowed North Koreans to take second jobs outside their normal state-paid work. Some farmers can now cultivate small private plots and sell the surplus; entrepreneurs can make a product, or import it from China, and sell it at private markets. Even doctors can charge something for extra services they provide for private patients. There is speculation that the government will allow some of these second jobs to become primary jobs if the entrepreneurs pay the government a hefty tax. As a result of the reforms, South Korean analysts and officials estimate that some North Korean households are deriving 90 percent of their income from second jobs.
As Linton describes it, “North Korea is changing very quickly — they’re learning how to develop a market economy.” Indeed, he is worried because some doctors and nurses are earning so much money from their second jobs that they are closing their medical practices. Some doctors are even taking jobs in the factories of the Kaesong Industrial Complex — the outpost of 52 South Korean-owned factories in western North Korea that now employs some 17,000 North Koreans. It, too, is managed by Hyundai Asan.
Linton says that North Korea is already better off financially than it was in the late 1990s, when famines struck the country and killed as many as 1 million people. The country is “already rebounding; it’s a lot better than the 1990s,” Linton says, citing the economic reforms and the increase in foreign aid flowing in since Kim agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program in February 2007.
Growing Foreign Influences
With economic change comes some slow cultural change as well. Because North Koreans now have a little more money in their pockets, they are becoming a bit more individualistic and less beholden to the group mentality of the country. And, according to South Korean sources, a bit more grumbling about the North Korean regime is heard publicly, and is even tolerated, without the swift and sure punishment of earlier years.
One set of interviews we did in South Korea was with a panel of four defectors from North Korea, all of them young men who had escaped through China and were now settled in the South. Two worked for Radio Free Chosun, a station in South Korea, partly funded by the U.S. government, that broadcasts into North Korea. Two others worked for human-rights groups. Fearing retribution for their families still in North Korea, they asked us not to use their names. One of the four said that since Kim Jong Il took over from his father, respect for, and fear of, the regime have gone down and skepticism has gone up. “There’s more sarcasm about Kim Jong Il now; you can even hear it on public transport and buses,” he said. “These sentiments are shared by intelligence officers and police officers, and they don’t arrest people for it anymore.”
South Korean pop culture, which has a large following all over East Asia, is being smuggled into the North as well, including television soap operas, styles of dress, and music. Defectors say that 50 to 60 percent of North Koreans have heard a foreign CD or viewed a foreign DVD — although most of them are innocuous Chinese and South Korean soap operas and dramas. A few cafes and health clubs have started up to cater to people with a bit of leisure time and extra cash. Even the vast gap that separates the lifestyle of the military and governing elite in Pyongyang from everyone else’s is lessening as second jobs raise incomes. The defectors say that more people are altering their radios to listen to foreign broadcasts — even though they risk being sent to a criminal camp if they’re caught. The defectors estimate that 20 percent of the population has some exposure to foreign radio. And the panel noted that North Koreans can surreptitiously exchange information in the new open markets.
But that’s not to say that the North Korean economy is sound or is out of the woods. The country is chronically short of food, energy, and foreign currency to import supplies. In 2007, floods and rains washed away several hundred thousand acres of crops. The food distribution network remains weak. South Korea sends considerable amounts of rice and fertilizer into the North, and the countries in the six-party talks deliver hundreds of thousands of tons of fuel oil as part of the denuclearization deal.
Nor does economic change mean a lessening, so far, of Kim Jong Il’s grip on power. South Korean officials say that he is firmly in control of the military and party apparatus. Indeed, along with the economic liberalization has come a crackdown on almost everything else. The country has no Internet. It has few televisions, according to North Korean defectors. Word of mouth is the most reliable form of news, but even that can be problematic, defectors say, because the regime is skilled in using informants to put out disinformation. Summing up, one of the defectors said, “North Koreans don’t have information, and they don’t have truth…. They don’t realize how poor they are or how dire their situation is. But that’s changing.”
Recently, the regime has taken to publicly dismissing and punishing officials caught in “antisocialist” behavior — that is, anything that smacks of greed or corruption. According to nongovernmental organizations working in the country, Pyongyang has also resumed public executions. The Good Friends private aid group reported in its December newsletter that the regime publicly executed eight people, including a prominent member of the country’s rubber-stamp legislature who had farmed a hidden, private plot for more than a decade.
This is still a brutal dictatorship that exerts maximum control on its populace. As one of the defectors said of his former country, with not a little understatement: “The North Korean system causes a lot of suffering to the North Korean people.”
Collapse Or Gradualism?
So, if the regime is so bad, aren’t Vice President Dick Cheney and other hard-liners in the Bush administration right — that the best policy is just to push this regime right off the cliff and into oblivion? Perhaps that outcome might be best for the 22 million North Koreans, but it might not be so easy for the 48 million South Koreans. Indeed, the fear of a North Korean collapse, in the style of East Germany in 1989 or South Vietnam in 1975, is probably feared as much by South Koreans as a military invasion from the north, and South Koreans of all political persuasions and occupations say that a collapse might be more destructive. Indeed, it is hard to overstate how much South Koreans want to avoid such an outcome.
South Korea’s outgoing unification minister, Lee Jae-joung, put it this way: “Peaceful and gradual” is what we want. “We hope to avoid a Vietnam or a Germany reunification model…. We don’t see those processes as being feasible in South Korea.”
South Koreans are proud of their economic miracle and want to protect it at almost all costs. And this pride is immediately understandable to anyone who visits. South Korea is a rich country with a palpable feeling of prosperity, orderliness, energy, and ambition that few countries can match. National infrastructure — from its airports and subways, to roads, bridges, and even public restrooms — and information-technology infrastructure are in most respects better than in the United States, as almost any American business executive living in South Korea will eagerly tell you.
Its economy is the 11th-largest in the world, and its president-elect campaigned on a “747” slogan — to make South Korea the seventh-largest economy, to double its per capita income to $40,000, and to maintain 7 percent annual growth rates through 2017. Few doubt the ability of South Koreans to reach their goal. But it can’t be done if the country is forced to suddenly absorb millions of North Korean refugees and spend untold billions of Korean won on reconstructing the disaster to the north.
As Unification Minister Lee said, “The economic gap is very wide.” The South has 100 times the economic capacity of the North, he said, and North Korea’s gross domestic product is one-fortieth of the South’s. Annual per capita income in South Korea is more than $20,000; in North Korea it is less than $500. These gaps are far wider than the ones that separated the two Vietnams or Germanys.
Indeed, one of the goals of the “sunshine” policy of detente with the North (initiated 10 years ago by then-South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and continued ever since) has been to slowly lift the standard of living there through such economic efforts as the Mount Kumkang resort and the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The goal is that when reunification, confederation, or collapse comes, the mismatch will not be so severe. South Korea’s newly elected president, Lee Myung-bak, who takes office in February, and its conservative Grand National Party reject some aspects of the sunshine policy but not the goal of lifting North Korea’s income levels. In fact, President-elect Lee puts a figure on it — he would like to see North Korea’s per capita income raised to $3,000. And he touts a grand scheme to unite the two Korean economies with a huge transportation canal that would flow from the southern part of South Korea to North Korea’s border with China.
In truth, however, Lee was elected on a platform of strengthening South Korea’s economy, not the North’s. He didn’t talk much about the North during the campaign. And in that decision, he’s in line with a lot of his citizens, who would just as soon see the North go away.
What The Future Holds
In an afternoon of interviews with a cross section of students from several South Korean universities, most were far more concerned with finding good jobs, getting ahead, and seeing South Korea established as a neutral power in an Asia not dominated by China, Japan, Russia, or the United States. They weren’t much interested in unifying with North Korea.
Indeed, the students pointed to a generation gap on that issue. Kim Hyung-Jin, a graduate student at Seoul National University, said, “I don’t really want reunification. The older generation has family in the North and that’s natural. But we view it as a foreign country…. I don’t know why we need reunification; our economy will collapse.”
A second student, also from Seoul National University, Bae Joon-Beom, echoed the first. “The younger generation approaches it differently than the older. They’re more visceral and emotional; we’re more practical. We ask, how much will it cost? How much will it affect our standard of living? How will it affect us? I would like North Korea to enter the international society on its own terms. I want to see them go more along the Vietnamese or Chinese model — open up their market as they see fit.”
The North Korean defectors, several of whom attend university, also commented on the lack of interest from their fellow South Korean students in uniting with the North. They said they understood that South Korea is a more individualistic society, preoccupied with material wealth and leisure-time pursuits, and they said they were drawn by those things themselves. But, as one of them said with some melancholy, “To many South Koreans, North Korea is a country that exists very, very far away.”
But it isn’t far away. The demilitarized zone is just 35 miles north of Seoul. Kim Jong Il has close to 1 million men under arms and has hundreds of multiple rocket launchers at the border whose missiles can rain down on Seoul in minutes. The pragmatic South Koreans know this. They hope to manage North Korea’s transition away from juche and Stalinism without violence.
Bruce Cumings, a Korea expert and the chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago, says that the South Korean elites in government and in the business conglomerates have made a conscious decision to rebuild North Korea slowly while profiting from the low wages they can pay North Korean factory workers, such as at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where wages are $60 a month. “I don’t anticipate major breakthroughs in reunification in the next five years, just a continuing and deepening economic relationship between North and South,” Cumings said.
As for collapse, Cumings calls that a pipe dream for now. He describes the North Koreans as “very, very stubborn and thick-skulled” people who respond to any mention of the word “collapse” by saying that would be the trigger for a new Korean war. “The North will not go down. They will die rather than have that happen,” Cumings said. “I just think it’s not only wrong but dangerous to plan on a North Korean collapse.”
Linton, too, sides with the gradualists. “I don’t see collapse,” he said, noting that North Korea has survived the fall of its patron, the Soviet Union, and the transformations in its other patron, China. “I see gradual reform, gradual change, and more coping writ large. I don’t think there will be a mass repudiation of the system.” He says that North Korea is emulating the Chinese and North Vietnamese models — continued one-party rule with gradual economic change. After Mao’s death, Linton notes, “there was no collapse in China, just change.”