Missile threats obscure Kim's desperate state

AT THE FOOT of Pyongyang's central landmark, the Juche Tower, are plaques presented by esteemed friends of North Korea's philosophy of juche (self-reliance): the Burkina Faso Women's Juche Study Group, the Lesotho-North Korean Friendship Society, the Paraguay Revolutionary Party, Kimilsungismo movements in Cuba and Czechoslovakia.

Across town, an enormous bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader, gazes over the rooftops with outstretched hand. Near by looms the pyramidal Ryugyong hotel, 105 stories of dank concrete, empty, unfinished, and probably uninhabitable. 'There is no problem on earth that Kim Il Sung cannot solve,' proclaims the official propaganda, going on to note that he is 'the greatest of the great men who are distinguished by history'.

One small problem, however, that the Great Leader has not mastered is how to feed his people, who now subsist on a daily diet of two small meals of rice and some root vegetables. Another irritant to life in the workers' paradise is a lack of oil and electricity to keep factories operating and transport systems working. But anyone who dares voice the slightest ingratitude towards the Great Leader's guidance is likely to join the tens of thousands in concentration camps around the country.

How much longer can a small impoverished state in a bleak corner of North-east Asia, run by an 81-year-old tyrant, hold the United States to ransom? For two years North Korea has been playing games over allowing international inspections of its nuclear plants, demanding concessions ranging from diplomatic recognition and aid to an end to US military exercises with South Korea.

There are fears that if economic sanctions were imposed on North Korea for its refusal to allow inspections, the Communist state could start a war with the South. Last week, tension grew during a series of threats and counter-threats. The North threatened to suspend the armistice on the Korean peninsula; the US said it would send Patriot missiles to South Korea to counter possible Scud missile strikes; and Pyongyang denounced this as an 'intolerable military challenge'.

No one wants to provoke a war with North Korea, which has a million men under arms. South Korea's capital, Seoul, is only 25 miles from the border, well within artillery range. But, equally, no one wants North Korea to develop a nuclear weapon, which would unleash a nuclear arms race in Asia as well as giving the green light to other maverick states to build their own Bombs. Like the plutonium in the nuclear weapons it is trying to build, North Korea is as dangerous to handle as it is dangerous to ignore.

'Everyone knows they are trying (to build a nuclear bomb),' said President Bill Clinton in a recent television interview. Everyone, that is, except probably the North Korean people themselves, who are fed by their government a bizarre diet of socialist rhetoric, improbable myths about their Great Leader and bitter diatribes against the decaying capitalist states.

The degree of thought- control exercised by the government over the people is so complete that, in this perfect Orwellian state, no one has any access to information to challenge official propaganda. Radio and television sets are built without tuners, so that North Koreans - unlike East Germans in the past - cannot find out what is happening in the much richer and freer South. North Koreans still have not been told by their government that American astronauts have landed on the Moon.

The streets of Pyongyang have an eerie quality, as if everyone has just been told the world is to end in half an hour. People walk quickly, expressionless, not looking right or left. There is no litter and no one carries shopping bags, but then there is nothing to buy that could go into a bag or produce litter.

North Korea's economic decay has accelerated since the collapse of the Communist bloc and the end of subsidies from Moscow and Peking. In the past 12 months there have been a number of reports of food riots in provincial centres, and a rumoured coup attempt that was supposedly nipped in the bud by the execution of 10 senior military officers.

But it was not until last month that the first official admission of the country's economic plight emerged. A communique released on 9 December, after an emergency meeting of the Communist Party's central committee, said the economy was in a 'grave situation' and suffering 'grim trials'. The current seven-year economic plan was to be suspended, and the report conceded that industrial output, energy supplies and farm production were all below targets.

This announcement was remarkable for a country which regularly boasted of unprecedented industrial achievements and over-abundant harvests, under the guidance of Kim and his 51-year-old son Kim Jong Il. Kim the Father had been planning to hand on the mantle of power to Kim the Son, establishing the world's first Communist dynasty. But at the current rate, Kim the Son stands to inherit little more than the keys to a vast, undernourished prison camp, which produces sub-standard rice, low-quality coal, some Scud missiles and - possibly - a nuclear weapon.

A protege of Stalin, Kim Il Sung was installed by the Soviet Union as North Korea's leader in 1948, as a counterbalance to the US-supported regime in South Korea. He received Stalin's support for the invasion of the South in 1950, and when the US fought back, he was saved from complete annihilation by hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops.

In 1953 they pushed the front lines back to the 38th parallel, which has served as the border between North and South Korea ever since. Today this so-called demilitarised zone (DMZ) is the most highly militarised frontier in the world, with a million North Korean troops confronted by 600,000 South Korean and 36,000 US troops, all ready to go to war at a moment's notice.

Yet despite the fraught diplomacy conducted on the hair- trigger of nuclear war, North Korea does not want conflict. Mr Clinton warned during a visit to Seoul last year that any use by Pyongyang of a nuclear device 'would mean the end of your country as you know it'. And accompanying all the confrontational rhetoric of the past six months has been a growing call for foreign investment and economic help for the bankrupt regime. Pyongyang has legalised foreign banking and foreign ownership of businesses in specially designated economic zones. A British businessman who visited North Korea recently said: 'They want to do business, any business, just to get some hard currency.'

Ironically, one of the strongest advocates of economic assistance to North Korea is its long-standing enemy, South Korea. Seoul has watched with horror the emerging costs of reunification in Germany, and North Korea is in a far worse state than the former East Germany.

A sudden collapse of the regime would send millions of refugees south, seeking food and work. But with hostility between the two Koreas so deep, and the possibility of a minor miscalculation flaring up into a conflagration - perhaps nuclear - Kim Il Sung is facing the one 'problem on earth' that he cannot afford not to solve.

(Photographs omitted)