Playing the nuclear bully in Pyongyang

North Korea promises its people eternal prosperity under Kim Jong Ill, but nuclear-tipped blackmail is what Anne Penketh discovers in the most closed society in the world
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The Independent Online

Two girls in pink roller-blade across a pristine square, the epitome of Asian cool. Across the vast empty expanse, neither a sweet wrapper nor a discarded piece of chewing gum is allowed to spoil the scene outside the People's Palace of Culture as the world's most reclusive communist state celebrates its 56th anniversary.

Two girls in pink roller-blade across a pristine square, the epitome of Asian cool. Across the vast empty expanse, neither a sweet wrapper nor a discarded piece of chewing gum is allowed to spoil the scene outside the People's Palace of Culture as the world's most reclusive communist state celebrates its 56th anniversary.

All day the country's propaganda machine churns out the familiar line: "As long as there is the wise leadership of Kim Jong Il, the Korean People's Army and the people will achieve eternal prosperity of the country."

Of the mushroom-shaped cloud that emerged over the north of the country last week, putting diplomats from East and West into a tizz, there is not a whisper.

Yesterday, standing on the platform at Yongwang metro station in Pyongyang, the visitor would be struck by the beauty of the twisted coloured glass lamps hanging from the ceiling, and by the friezes running down each side of the platform, depicting the left and right banks of a river. Yongwang (meaning Glory) is indeed a marvel to behold. But there is something more sinister that catches the eye at the bottom of the escalator that dives sharply into the bowels of the city: the two sets of giant reinforced doors. For the Soviet-era metro has the dual purpose of serving as a nuclear bunker.

North Korea has played the nuclear card for years to blackmail the international community into shoring up its communist regime. But when George Bush branded North Korea part of the "axis of evil" and warned in his state of the nation last year: "America and the rest of the world will not be blackmailed," the world moved a notch closer towards nuclear Armageddon.

News of the massive explosion suggested that Kim Jong Il, the country's mercurial dictator, or 'the experienced and tested leader' as the Korean Central News Agency describes him, may have played another card in his game of nuclear blackmail. The explosion in an area near missile bases in Ryanggang province in the remote north-east, near the border with China, was much stronger than a train explosion that killed at least 170 people in April.

If it turns out to be part of a nuclear experiment, and not an industrial accident, it could be the final proof that the regime was not boasting when it announced last year that it had developed an advanced nuclear weapons programme.

Last night the news of the explosion and mushroom cloud spread through the diplomatic community in Pyongyang, causing a frenzy of activity. So secretive is the regime, and so unpredictable its behaviour, that every one thought it quite plausible that the North Koreans had carried out their threat to test a nuclear weapon.

This is, after all, the country that waited 48 hours before informing the rest of the world of the train crash at Ryongchon in April that left 169 people dead and triggered rumours of an assassination attempt on Kim Jong Il. The regime waited another 21 hours before informing North Koreans themselves.

North Korea is the most closed society in the world, and probably the most inhumane. Its people are kept in a constant state of fear which is fed by the regular air raid warnings that could presage an attack by America.

George Bush was recently likened to Hitler by Kim Jong Il. The people have no internet connections, access to foreigners is strictly limited and tightly controlled, and the only information the North Koreans receive is through the official media. This is the policy of Juche in action, the self-sufficiency that has been the watchword of the country since its establishment at the end of the Korean war - which never produced a peace treaty between North and South Korea.

It is said that the indoctrination of the people is so successful that there is no need for the heavy-handed approach of a Soviet or East German style secret police. Random conversations in Pyongyang - in the presence of government minders - very quickly lead to city residents making a statement of loyalty to the government.

It is said that North Korean authorities place their 22.6 million citizens into three categories: core (or reliable), wavering, and hostile. The latter category seems to coincide with those who have been sent to prison camps, whose existence has been filmed by satellite photographs. But according to some sources, there may be up to 51 classifications, not just three.

Militaristic symbols are everywhere, along the huge grey avenues flanked by austere grey buildings. One roadside billboard shows three helmeted soldiers raising their fists towards a glorious future. Another exhorts: "Think and work and live according to the requirements of Sungun politics" (the policy that puts the military first).

While the military and political élite live a relatively cosseted life in the capital, the impoverishment of the people outside can only be glimpsed: on the road to the airport, one sees oxen pulling loaded carts, women bent double under loads of firewood and bicycles loaded up with sacks. Cars are a rarity on the broad avenues that sweep through the city.

But the modern world is now beating at the gate, and the number of North Koreans willing to risk their lives to escape is growing: 2,000 are expected to flee through China to South Korea by the end of this year, compared with 1,200 who escaped via that route last year. The days of the regime may well be numbered. But for the international community, the burning question is how to manage a "safe landing" for a nuclear-armed country whose collapse would be much more dangerous than that of East Germany 15 years ago.

At this time, the nuclear powers in the UN Security Council - Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States - are hoping to coax Pyongyang into a new round of six-party talks in order to end the latest standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. A new date for the talks - involving the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia and the US - has been pencilled in for 22 September, but North Korea is keeping mum about whether it will attend.

Delegations from Australia, Britain and China have beaten a path to Pyongyang in the last few weeks to attempt to persuade the North Korean leadership that it is useless to hedge its bets on a change of American leadership, saying that American policy is unlikely to change whether George Bush is re-elected or whether it is John Kerry in the White House.

It is hoped that the North Koreans will accept the US offer on the table: to agree to dismantle all their supposed nuclear weapons, then during a three-month period, energy supplies and other aid would start coming into the country. In the same period, though, Pyongyang would have to declare all its nuclear programmes, submit to inspections, and disable all its nuclear weapons. Once those steps are complete, further support and aid would come through.

One big problem for the West's assessment is the lack of knowledge about what is happening inside the country. Even in Burma, human rights officials can meet dissidents, or visit prisons. But not in North Korea. Out of 26 counties in North Korea, 40 are closed to foreigners - including Kimhyongik county near the Chinese border, where yesterday's incident took place. The veil of secrecy has only been lifted by the accounts of North Korean defectors. But even though their reports have been cross-checked and compared to satellite photographs, an informed observer in Pyongyang this week said that "the point is that we don't know anything for sure".

Until now, Pyongyang has issued blanket denials about the existence of prison camps for political dissidents, which could contain up to 200,000 inmates. One defector, a former North Korean army intelligence officer, told the BBC last February that he had seen prisoners gassed to death. The North Koreans said the allegations were part of a US-inspired "lie".

Pyongyang only admitted to the bizarre practice of abducting the nationals of Japan and South Korea to use them to train spies as recently as this year, after denying it for decades. Five were returned to Japan for emotional reunions last March.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International reports that the surveillance and "checking" for illegal North Koreans in China has intensified since 2001. Tens of thousands have been forcibly repatriated by China since 2002.

North Korea also seems to be the only country that practices collective punishment - meting out punishment to successive generations after an offender has paid the penalty.

A senior North Korean official admitted for the first time yesterday to a visiting British delegation that "reeducation through labour is used" in North Korea. The official, Ri Jong Hyok, who is in charge of North Korean policy towards South Korea as president of the Institute for National Reunification, said he did not know how many camps there were, and did not go into details as to whether the camps were for criminals or political dissidents.

In addition to the nuclear issue, North Korea has been accused of using its citizens as pawns in attempting to blackmail the West to provide aid in order to shore up the regime, after its disastrous famine of 1995 and 1996. "The international aid arrived in the nick of time to stop North Korea from collapsing. The government had allowed several million ordinary people to starve to death, but by around 1998 it could no longer feed the army or the party members of the DPRK - everyone faced terminal starvation," says Jasper Becker, who is shortly to publish a book on North Korea. "The UN and South Korean aid went to the élite and ensured they stayed loyal. Kim Jong Il was faced with being being able to impose martial law in key areas of the country and terrorise it into submission. The international community and the South Korean 'sunshine policy' elevated his status by making him central to the flow of aid and he could resume arms purchases and the nuclear weapons programme."

Richard Ragan, the country director for the World Food programme, denies suggestions that the UN aid was diverted to the military and the élite. He notes that last year, the North Koreans harvested 4 million tonnes of cereals whereas 5 million are needed for survival. "The military will eat from that four million tonnes - that's guaranteed," he said.

He added that he was also sceptical about the reports of UN aid being diverted because of its nature - cereals (ie not rice) and milk products designed for children. "They're not going to eat that stuff," he said.

Britain is meanwhile concerned that North Korea announced that for 2005 it will not participate in the UN consolidated appeal for humanitarian aid. Government officials say they would prefer to deal with individual governments on their own terms. Bilateral aid is not monitored in the same way as the UN operation. Now the Pyongyang government runs the risk that international aid will dry up.

But the decision to stop accepting the UN co-ordinated humanitarian aid - now nine years after the famine - may have been motivated by a desire to "save face". Mr Ragan said that the continued humanitarian aid - as opposed to other assistance - "was undermining their policy of self-sufficiency".

He predicted that economic changes which have led to the introduction of timid market reforms in the food sector could produce "winners and losers" and a new need for food aid.

But the fact of the economic reforms, introduced in 2002, may be a sign that the regime has recognised that it must adapt or die.

One Western diplomat last night portrayed Kim Jong Il as a reformer who has allowed the personality cult to build up around his late father Kim Il Sung, while he takes a back seat.

Pyongyang is draped with huge portraits of Kim Il Sung seemingly on every building. His portrait graces every government office. A huge bronze-coloured statue of him on Mansudae Hill was visited yesterday in the driving rain by pilgrims who laid wreaths and bowed in homage before walking off. Kim Jong Il is present in the official portraits, but in a lesser role."It could be that Kim Jong Il is preparing the ground to say that his father's way didn't really work, and he can step in," the diplomat said.

But in the Looking Glass world of North Korea, the real intentions of the regime can only be guessed at.