'Down with Kim': dissenters in North Korea find their voice

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Shaky footage of defaced images of Kim Jong Il and calls for his overthrow have been hailed in South Korea as evidence of a growing internal opposition movement.

Shaky footage of defaced images of Kim Jong Il and calls for his overthrow have been hailed in South Korea as evidence of a growing internal opposition movement.

It is one of three videos smuggled out of North Korea in recent weeks showingchild beggars, inmates of a prison camp, and a policeman meting out instant justice in a market to a woman accused of prostitution.

The latest footage, shot last November in Hoeryong, a town on the border with China, shows a handwritten poster that says "Down with Kim Jong Il! People, let's all rise up and drive out the dictatorship!"

In a long statement, the leader of the Youth Solidarity for Freedom can be heard saying, "The North Korean people are suffering hunger and poverty because of Kim Jong Il's dictatorship and dogmatic politics." The statement also accuses Kim Jong Il of killing his father, Kim Il Sung, and purging other leaders who advocated reforms.

The Seoul-based Civil Coalition for Human Rights of the Kidnapped and Defectors from North Korea, headed by Hwang Jang-yop, the former chief ideologue in North Korea, claims the tape is by one of 10 underground anti-government organisations in North Korea.

In the past only handwritten anti-government posters and photographs of graffiti have surfaced to support anecdotal evidence of popular dissent within the country.

Refugees say Kim Jong Il is hated and blamed for causing a famine which has killed three million. Some North Koreans have become emboldened to voice their frustrations as the economy has fallen apart and social controls have weakened.

Refugees report that military officers have been seized and executed because Kim suspected them of trying to organise a coup d'état. The video contradicts claims by the South Korean President, Roh Moo-hyun, that Kim Jong Il is firmly in charge despite a steady stream of stories about purges, rifts within the ruling family and assassination attempts.

The South Korean President is doing everything he can to appease Kim Jong Il and reassure him that the South is not working for his overthrow.

Seoul has long pursued a so-called "sunshine policy", favouring dialogue over confrontation with its northern neighbour.

President Roh has promised that he will no longer help refugees escape the country and has even put forward a bill making it more difficult for North Koreans to claim asylum in the South. Last year Pyongyang broke off talks after Seoul organised an airlift for 450 North Koreans who had made it to Vietnam. Refugees in South Korea trying to foment unrest in the North by broadcasting news and smuggling in information about the outside world have repeatedly complained of government harassment.

Seoul's policies are at odds with the mood in Washington. Last October, the US Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act with up to $24m (£13m) a year, some of which goes towards helping refugees, beaming information into the North and supporting dissident groups.

Trying to soften the image of Kim Jong Il is not easy. A Buddhist NGO in South Korea, Good Friends, which has been helping refugees in China for 10 years, has just released a report alleging half of foreign food donations to the North go directly to the military and party organisations and not to the needy.

Earlier this month, Seoul was further embarrassed when Chinese secret police detained South Korean lawmakers attempting to hold a press conference in Beijing. They wanted to ask the Chinese government to show more leniency towards North Korean refugees and those helping them. In particular they tried to publicise the case of Choi Young-hun, a South Korean jailed for attempting to rescue 50 North Korean refugees in China and the Rev Kim Dong-sik, a pastor suspected of being murdered by North Korean agents while helping refugees on the border. As evidence emerges of the instability of the Kim regime, it undercuts the position of those favouring engagement with Pyongyang and strengthens the hand of the hawks in Washington.

Pyongyang seems to be waiting to see who will be in charge of Korean policy in the second Bush administration before deciding whether to take part in further negotiations. The most aggressive critic of North Korea, Under Secretary of State John Bolton, will not continue in office but the secretary of state-designate Condoleezza Rice has not named a successor.

If the Bush administration decides to focus on Iran rather than North Korea, Kim Jong Il may find himself simply ignored. The current stalemate may then continue with neither side making concessions.