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THE WORLD | EAST ASIA

Stories of North Korean Refugees Turn More Macabre

April 18, 1999|Don Kirk | Don Kirk, the Seoul correspondent of the International Herald Tribune, is working on a book about the Korean crisis

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Forecasts of another war on the Korean peninsula have been reverberating so long that they may seem like distant echoes of the Cold War, in which the United States viewed the demilitarized zone that still divides North from South as a front line against communism. Those days are long gone, but the suffering of North Korea's 22 million people is now so acute as to portend another scenario. No regime can inflict such torment, and no people can endure it, without eventually sparking a response likely to be violent, unpredictable and of consequence to the entire region.

One gets a sense of the suffering of the North Koreans from conversations with refugees trickling across the forbidding northern frontier into China. They recount tales of cannibalism, public executions, routine torture and beatings, and death sentences in the form of permanent exile to remote mountain gulags. The stories they tell differ radically from the reports filed by the relatively few foreign aid workers who get into the North, travel only in the company of official escorts and, even then, are banned from visiting much of the country.

From the refugees' conversations, it is possible to construct a picture of a government increasingly isolated from most of its people and adopting ever more repressive measures to survive. A turning point was the decision of hereditary leader Kim Jong Il to begin a campaign of executions a year after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in July 1994. By now, the executions are so routine that every North Korean refugee you meet has witnessed one locally. The executions follow a definite script. The "culprit," bound, gagged and badly beaten after months of imprisonment, is dragged before a judge, who recites the crime committed. A crowd that includes schoolchildren herded from their classes watches the proceedings. The defendant is asked if he will admit his guilt. Then the judge announces the sentence over a loudspeaker. The person is then tied to a post and shot, usually three times by three different marksmen, according to the accounts. One marksmen fires at the head, another at the chest, a third at the legs.

Virtually every refugee has heard a story about cannibalism, which doesn't necessarily mean that such acts are widespread in the North. Some claim to have seen pork mixed with human flesh; others say they attended executions of people found guilty of butchering children. In one Chinese village near the Tumen River frontier with North Korea, a refugee said that he had witnessed the executions of an entire family of five, all condemned for cannibalism. In the quest for food, said another refugee, people dug up fresh corpses, chopped up the flesh, then cooked and ate it.

As shocking as these stories are, the indifferent manner in which they are related suggests such horrors are only of minor importance. Far more pressing to people from the North is the virtual absence of jobs and working factories. Almost no smoke rises from the decrepit chimney stacks of factories on the North Korean side of the Tumen or Yalu Rivers. There is no signs of traffic on any road visible from the border. In the special economic zone in the northeastern corner of North Korea, which includes the towns of Rajin and Sonbong, word from foreign visitors is that most of the factories there are not operating, either. Industry in the country has simply shut down.

Normal daily human activity is slowing as well. Korean Chinese who do business in the North say most people don't have the energy to go outside their habitats, much less to work. When people do venture forth, their purpose is to find a few scraps of food to make it through another day. Tree bark, various plants and dried corn are dietary staples. North Korean runaway children whom I interviewed urged me not to order any meat for them because they had had almost none for years and could not digest it. To my amazement, they all were teenagers. Judging from their size, I had thought they were 8 or 9 years old.

One sign of the regime's growing desperation is that Kim Jong Il now largely draws on his authority as chairman of the defense commission, rather than as general secretary of the Workers' Party, to rule the country. He increasingly counts on a military apparatus of about 2 million to provide his security. Last week, Kim promoted more than 70 officers to the rank of general, an obvious effort to buck up the spirits of possibly restive military underlings. Unlike his father, he no longer trusts civilians, most of them military veterans, at the core of the party and the government.

But in retreating behind the power of his armed forces, Kim Jong Il can play a couple of cards that may enable him to survive at the expense of his people.

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