Kim Il Sung




bowling alley

The World's Last Stalinist State

Corruption and Favoritism Alive and Well

April 24, 2003


PYONGYANG, North Korea -- "Money," a North Korean rail guard whispered loudly to a foreign visitor in a dark staircase.

It seemed to be the only English word he knew. "Money," he demanded again when met with a quizzical look.

He wanted a pay-off for having allowed the visitor the slip into an off-limits building at the Sinuiju train station, just across the border with China, and thus walk out of the station and wander around amongst ordinary North Koreans for a few minutes before being caught and escorted back to the platform. Given 10 Chinese yuan (about $1.20), the guard scowled.

"Fifty!" he said in Chinese.

Bribery, it seems, is alive and well in the self-proclaimed paradise. A bit of cash will make the customs officer look the other way when he discovers a cell phone -- considered contraband -- in your luggage. South Korean and Chinese businessmen say they are frequently asked for "gifts."

Built on an ideology called "juche," or self-reliance, and reinforced with a mixture of oppression, fear and relentless propaganda, the world's most isolated and totalitarian society is showing cracks.

Unknown numbers are fleeing to China every year, some in search of food and some to escape persecution. Estimates of the number of refugees living in northeastern China range from 20,000 to 200,000. Recent defectors say indirect criticism of the system or of leader Kim Jong-il, punishable offenses, are on the rise.

Even among the privileged elite, it is obvious that there are those who no longer believe in the system. During a tourist trip this month, a tour guide repeatedly spouted the party line while making it clear he did not believe it.

"Do you want my opinion or the opinion of all Koreans?" he replied when asked whether he really thought America was an enemy.

It was a subtle yet extraordinary statement for a citizen of a country where everyone is inculcated with one line of thought and deviation from the party line can mean imprisonment or even execution.

Earlier this month, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva passed a resolution for the first time condemning North Korea for systematic rights abuses including torture, public executions and "all-pervasive and severe restrictions" on freedom of thought, religion, opinion and assembly.

In what North Korea hails as a glorious egalitarian society, some are decidedly more equal than others. There are those who wait for the bus and those who drive Mercedes; those who wash their laundry in dirty streams and those with imported kitchen appliances.

The elite can spend evenings at a posh 40-lane bowling alley, shooting pool and playing video games. They can buy imported shampoo, medicines and other goods at hard currency shops, where a package of instant noodles costs $3. They can even enjoy roast duck or savory hotpots at restaurants around town. North Korean movie stars and singers are regular customers.

For their loyalty, they are rewarded with perks such as having the right to live in Pyongyang, getting an apartment on a lower floor -- so they don't have to climb 30 floors when the power goes out -- and generous material compensation.

"We live on the fourth floor," boasted another tour guide, who has developed a beer belly. "I have two Japanese TV sets and a South Korean refrigerator."

Pyongyang is a showcase city, filled with grandiose war monuments, an unusual number of Soviet-style sports stadiums and endless rows of high-rise apartment blocks. The government maintains strict controls over who can live there and North Koreans who want to visit need special permission.

But even the privileged have little access to outside information and are kept in the dark about many state matters. Having a shortwave radio and watching Chinese television are serious crimes.

Locals and foreigners are kept as segregated as possible. On trains, the door between compartments for foreigners and North Koreans is locked. The 100 or so foreigners who live in Pyongyang are discouraged from learning Korean and international aid agencies say it is almost impossible to hire Korean-speaking staff. Tourists are not allowed to go anywhere without their guides.

All North Koreans are essentially required to keep an eye on each other as well. They are not allowed to be alone with foreigners. A South Korean businessman living in North Korea said he always meets with at least two North Koreans.

Citizens must attend weekly self-criticism sessions with their neighbors or colleagues and report any mistakes someone may have made.

They have no idea that President Bush labeled them part of the "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq, in his state of the union address last year. The tour guide, who, as a trusted party member is allowed contact with foreigners, had heard something about it.

"Is it axis of devil?" he asked. "Or devil axis?"

He also did not know his government test-fired two missiles earlier this year. One of them was launched just hours before the inauguration of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in February.

"There's nothing to do in Pyongyang," said a Chinese tour guide who visits frequently. "They know nothing about the outside world. The only things about Pyongyang are: the air is clean and the girls have never been touched."

They are equally uninformed about domestic matters, including their own "dear leader," one of the many titles for Kim Jong-il. The state releases no information about his family or any other personal details. He is believed to have three children, each with different mothers.

"Korean people have heard his voice only once," the guide said. "They have never seen his wife. I hear a lot from tourists, but people here don't know."

Cult-like worship of Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim Il-sung, who ruled the country for 45 years until his death in 1994, is at the center of the regime's grip on power. Most people wear a lapel pin in public of one or both of them. Such attachment is beginning to fray, at least among residents in some rural areas. While portraits of the two hang in every public building and office in the country, refugees in China say that some citizens have torn down posters with his image from their walls, citing the toll the country's famine has taken on their lives.

A 70-foot high bronze statue of Kim Il-sung is one of only two structures lighted at night. (The other is the Tower of the Juche Idea.) Visitors are asked to buy flowers and bow at the statue and warned that if they take a photo of it that does not include the entire body, it's "very dangerous."

Some North Koreans have also apparently learned to channel Kim Jong-il. A visiting European reporter who recently asked to interview him was met with a puzzled look.

"You don't need to talk to him," a North Korean official finally answered. "He's talking to you through us."

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