North Koreans find plenty of reasons to weep

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The Independent Online


Japanese television this week showed a striking film released by the North Koreans. Like most such productions from the Democratic People's Republic, it was high on sentiment and low on production values, but its message was obvious. Behind a long table stood the chubby Kim Jong Il, son of North Korea's founder and its ruler of 40 years, the late Kim Il Sung.

On the other side of the table a multitude of neat-looking peasants waited patiently. One by one, they approached the table to be handed bundles of blankets and mattresses by the beaming "Dear Leader". Some raised them aloft with cries of "May He Live 10,000 Years!" Others simply bowed and retreated, tears streaming down their faces.

They were intended to be tears of love and gratitude, butNorth Koreans have plenty to weep over. In August, the mountainous country suffered unprecedented floods caused by the heaviest rainfall in its history. In a three-week period daily rainfall averaged nearly 60cms destroying or damaging bridges, roads, half of the country's schools and 100,000 houses. About 5.2 million people in eight provinces were affected, and half of the country's farmland, 1.2 million hectares, was inundated. The peasants sobbing at the feet of the Dear Leader were a few of half a million North Koreans left homeless by the floods. Total damage is estimated at $15bn (pounds 9.6bn).

The report included a shopping list of requests to the UN; all week Pyongyang has been making similar aid requests to Japanese and Korean charities and government agencies. On top of 30 trucks, 200,000 blankets, 250,000 tons of diesel oil, and $491m of cash aid was perhaps the most ominous item of all - 10 million units of cholera vaccine. And yesterday Russia sealed its border because of a typhoid outbreak on the North Korean side. Interfax news agency, quoting Russia's Emergencies Ministry, said unofficial reports put the death toll at more than 1,000.

A year ago, North Korea caused international shudders after suspicions that it was using its nuclear power plants to develop nuclear weapons. Today, that crisis appears close to resolution: officials from America, Japan and the two Koreas, meeting in Malaysia this week, are thrashing out the final details of a deal which will replace the suspicious reactors with a safer model. But just as one danger has been resolved, the floods have thrown up another.

Reports from the handful of diplomats and businessmen allowed to visit the country suggest that North Korea has been on the verge of famine for most of the decade. This year's harvest is likely to produce only half of the 7.8 million tons of grain necessary to feed the population. Yesterday officials in Tokyo said North Korea has asked Japan for more rice in addition to the 300,000 tons Tokyo has been shipping north since July. Defectors to the South have reported malnutrition and rickets, There are rumours of uprisings and rice riots.

Whether these could ever amount to an organised resistance movement is difficult to say; imponderable too is the role of the military, which is believed to receive far more than its share of rice. But the prospect of internal division or a country forced so hard up against the wall that it had nothing to lose by an invasion of the south, are even more alarming than the murkiness of the status quo.

The situation is further complicated by the mysteries surrounding young Kim who has still not formally succeeded to his father's presidential title, 14 months after his death. The absence of firm information has spawned wild rumours - the Dear Leader is dead, or mad, or alcoholic. According to a senior South Korean politician, Kim Jong Pil, even the Dear Leader's television appearances may be the result of computer image manipulation; so the peasants film are weeping for nothing and for nobody at all.