A gulag with nukes: inside North Korea

Jasper Becker
18 July 2005

The Chinese shopkeeper gave a triumphant yell when he spotted a ragged figure bent double and stumbling about the garbage that had cascaded from a hilltop. I plunged after him through the deep snow. When I caught up with him, he was shouting and grinning at his successful catch.

As he fished around his pocket to pull out some plastic twine, a face black with dirt and scabrous with pellagra shrunk back into the shadows of a hood made from grey sackcloth like a medieval leper. The creature whimpered feebly but put up no resistance as the shopkeeper bound the twine around her hands. I now found myself bargaining for the life of a woman I guessed to be around 50.

She turned out to be 28. She had been a worker in Hamhung, North Korea’s second largest industrial city. All the factories had closed. Her husband had disappeared and she was left with no rations to try to look after her 5-year old. “Without work, you get no food”, she said.

Jasper Becker is the author of Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea (Oxford University Press, 2005). His website is here.

After some haggling, I managed to buy her life for 200 yuan (around £13 or $20). This was 1997, at the height of the North Korean famine when 3 million out of 22 million perished in (proportionately) the worst man-made famine ever recorded in peacetime. To call her or the hundreds of thousands like her “refugees” is a misnomer; they are escapees from the last slave society left in the world.

Eight years on, the North Koreans are still starving and the west still does not know how to deal with their “dear leader”, Kim Jong Il – who inherited the state leadership from his father, “great leader” Kim Il Sung, in 1994. Washington’s elite remains deeply divided about whether it is wiser to appease or confront him.

Kim has agreed to return to the six-party nuclear talks (involving Russia, China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and the United States) he abandoned a year ago; the talks resume in Beijing on 26 July 2005.

At the last showdown in 2002, the Bush administration put its trust in China, which in turn promised to force North Korea to the negotiating table and make it give up its nuclear weapons. China has let Bush down, and for a very clear reason – it is part of the problem. Every year, China forcibly sends back across the border 25,000 North Korean escapees, many of whom are then shot or imprisoned in death camps.

China claims they are all “economic migrants” and forbids the United Nations High Commission for Refugees from opening camps and processing claims for political asylum. China is determined to prevent its vassal from collapsing, East Germany-style; its support for North Korea is part of a pattern that has seen it give uncritical support to regimes like Pol Pot’s Cambodia and, more recently, the Darfur-oppressing Islamist junta in Sudan and Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan.

The court of Kim Jong Il

When, one day, the Kim Jong Il regime falls and the mass graves open up in North Korea, the United Nations will get the blame. The World Food Programme has run the largest and longest emergency food programme in its history. It boasts that it averted a great famine in the late 1990s, and that by careful monitoring, it is now protecting the neediest members of society.

The trouble is that when North Koreans are free to speak, they tell a very different story. In Seoul in June 2005, I met Choi Seung-cheol, who saw thousands of emaciated bodies arriving at the hospital in Chongjin where he worked as a doctor. This industrial port on the east coast was one of the first to receive international aid, but he reckoned that over 200,000 died there. At the hospital, they worked without any medical supplies because 90% of the foreign aid was confiscated.

“They kept everything for themselves”, he said. He and many others I interviewed believe that billions of dollars in foreign aid has been diverted, partly to fund the northern state’s weapons programmes and partly to finance Kim Jong Il’s luxurious daily routine.

South Korea’s defence ministry estimates that Kim spent $400 million in 1997-2002 buying second-hand MiG fighter jets, submarine parts, helicopters, and engines for tanks and ships. His troops are equipped with mini-underwater submarines launched from disguised fishing vessels, specially adapted hovercrafts, light planes and a defence industry hidden inside mountains which builds ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons and chemical gases in subterranean factories and research laboratories.

The costliest part of it all is the nuclear-weapons programmes, much of which Kim has probably been able to hide as effectively as the Iranians have hidden theirs from United Nations inspectors. This is in addition to an intercontinental ballistic missile programme whose scope caught every one by surprise on 31 August 1998 when Kim fired a rocket which flew over Japan.

The stories told about the extravagance of Kim Jong-Il’s lifestyle are so lurid that at first they seem hard to believe. A number of former cooks, including an Italian and a Japanese sushi chef, have described in detail his gourmet obsessions. One chef published a book in Japan under the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto; at the very time people were starving in their millions, he travelled to Iran and Uzbekistan to buy caviar, to China for melons and grapes, to Thailand and Malaysia for durians and papayas, to the Czech Republic for Pilsner beer, to Denmark for bacon, and (regularly) to Japan for tuna and other fresh fish.

When I tracked down a member of one of Kim’s “happiness teams” of dancers and masseuses in Seoul, I asked her if these tales could be true. O Yong-hui, a petite slender woman with a pale porcelain complexion and almond eyes started out as a professional gymnast until she was recruited to join one of the four all-girl dance troupes. She is now 33.

She described how, on joining Kim’s court, she was given handmade Italian shoes, Japanese designer clothes (Yamoto, Kenzo, Mori) and an Omega watch inscribed with Kim Jong Il’s name. A check of Swiss trade statistics shows that in 1998, North Korea did indeed import $2.7 million’s worth of luxury watches.

At breakfast she enjoyed French croissants, fresh yoghurt and imported fruits because Kim said they must have clear and healthy skins. At lunch there was fresh raw fish, Japanese-style, and at dinner Korean or western dishes.

“We ate off porcelain dishes inlaid with roses and used silver tableware. Everything was imported. Nothing I have ever seen in South Korea is as good”, she said. When her five years was up – no girls stay longer – she decided to flee with her husband, a former bodyguard.

I double-checked their stories with an ex-bodyguard, Lee Young-guk who observed Kim at close quarters during eleven years of service.

“In a real sense, he is the richest man in the world. There are no limits on what he can do”, Lee said. “He has at least ten palaces set in sprawling grounds and insists each is always occupied by thousands of staff so his enemies are never sure where he is. They contain golf courses, stables for his horses, garages full of motor-bikes and luxury cars, shooting-ranges, swimming pools, cinemas, funfair parks, water-jet bikes and hunting grounds stocked with wild deer and duck.”

A big bulky man in a blue suit, Lee reached down below the coffee table, and showed me shins covered by a mass of blue scars. When Lee Young-guk returned to his home to find everyone starving, he decided to escape; but North Korean agents masquerading as South Koreans caught him in China. His strong physique and years of harsh training helped him survived the torture, and he escaped again.

Lee says that Kim Jong Il fears an uprising like the one that overthrew Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. In the face of several abortive army rebellions, he relies on a crack force of around 100,000 men, the equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard.

After the Soviet bloc’s collapse and the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war of 1991, Kim took ever-greater internal security measures. He expanded the secret police, creating three duplicate layers of surveillance. No one in the elite could go anywhere or meet anyone without first obtaining his permission.

After the United States tried to “decapitate” Saddam Hussein in the second Iraq war of 2003, he disappeared for four months and moved around Pyongyang using a series of tunnels that connect all key buildings and were designed to withstand a nuclear attack.

A gulag with nukes

When Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, travelled to Pyongyang to meet Kim in 2000 and arrange a summit with President Clinton, she was told he was reclusive, even delusional – a weak, cautious man hampered by a stammer who lived in the shadow of his father Kim Il Sung. She found instead, she reported, a charming if eccentric man who seemed reassuringly rational.

If indeed Washington can do business with Kim Jong Il, he would first have to be absolved from any responsibility for his crimes against humanity. The United Nations, anxious to continue operating in the north, has led the way by officially blaming “temporary” food shortages on bad weather and the loss of Soviet aid after 1990.

But you only have to meet North Koreans to see compelling evidence of malnutrition that began twenty years ago. I met kids on the border who claimed to be 19 or 22; they had the physiques of 10-year-olds.

Lee Min-bok is a refugee in Seoul, an agricultural expert. Kim Jong Il told his father in 1982 that the country had reaped a record harvest of fifteen million tons of grain – double the true figure. Under Kim Jong Il, lying became so endemic that it destroyed the planned economy.

Everyone learned how to please the “dear leader”; all you had to do was lie. People started to cheat by making false reports. By the mid-1980s, the country was running short of a million tons of grain every year, enough to feed 3 million people. Lee Min-bok first saw people dying of hunger in 1988, in North Korea’s northeast, seven years before the country appealed for international aid.

Lee Min-bok’s research proved that the country could feed itself if it embraced Chinese-style agricultural reforms. Kim Jong-Il refused to consider any reform and Lee, fearing for his life, decided to flee.

Those who doubt (or are even suspected of doubting) Kim’s fantasy world are sent to places like Camp 22. Ahn Myong-chol, now a banker in Seoul, spent a decade working as a guard in various camps. He can still recall the shock – “like a hammer” – on first seeing dwarf-like creatures milling about in filthy rags.

“They were walking skeletons of skin and bone, with faces covered in cuts and scars where they had been beaten. Most had no ears; they had been torn off in beatings. Many had lost a leg and hobbled about on crude crutches or sticks”, Ahn remembers.

Ahn was told not to consider the prisoners human beings. They were killed casually for the slightest infractions, often in gruesome ways – buried alive, dragged behind jeeps, hung or shot, garrotted or burned alive. The rest were worked to death in mines or building secret tunnels for the military, or given lethal jobs like testing chemical weapons.

“Anyone suspected of disloyalty ended up in the camps”, he said. Kim Il-sung had purged opponents by the trainload, but his son nearly doubled the number of political prisoners. Whole families would be arrested, and sent to prison camps without trial and without even knowing their crime.

Kang Chol-hwan describes his camp childhood in his book The Aquariums of Pyongyang. When President Bush invited him to the White House, Pyongyang reacted furiously, calling Kang “human trash” and threatening the United States with a refusal to consider further talks if it continued to “insult” North Korea.

The New York Times and the rest of liberal America wants Bush to start serious negotiations and stop calling Kim Jong Il names. President Bush is certain to ignore this advice. As the Beijing six-party talks prepare to reconvene on 26 July, the stage is set for a new showdown on the Korean peninsula.

Further Links:

North Korean Refugees

North Korea zone

Citizen's Alliance for North Korean Human Rights

North Korea Daily

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