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Despite the severe food shortages plaguing his impoverished nation, North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il made few efforts in 2001 to free up the country's command economy or gain increased aid by improving relations with South Korea and the United States. Thanks to international food-aid programs, the country no longer seems to be in danger of a repeat of the 1990s famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The outlook seemed bleak, however, for any real improvements in the lives of ordinary North Koreans.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established in the northern part of the Korea Peninsula in September 1948, three years after the United States occupied the south of the peninsula - and Soviet forces, the north -- following Japan's defeat in World War II. At independence, North Korea's uncontested ruler was Kim Il-sung, a former Soviet army officer who claimed to be a guerrilla hero in the struggle against Japanese colonial rule that began in 1910. North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950 in an attempt to reunify the peninsula under Communist rule. Drawing in the United States and China, the ensuing three-year conflict killed up to two million people on both sides and ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty. Since then, the two Koreas have been on a continuous war footing.
Kim solidified his power base during the Cold War, purging rivals, throwing thousands of political prisoners into gulags, and promoting a Stalinist-style personality cult emphasizing absolute fealty to himself as North Korea's "Dear Leader." The end of the Cold War brought North Korea's command economy to the brink of collapse, as Pyongyang lost crucial Soviet and East Bloc subsidies and preferential trade deals. North Korea's economy shrank an estimated 30 percent between 1991 and 1996, according to the United Nations.
With the regime's survival already in doubt, Kim's death in 1994 ushered in even more uncertainty. Many observers questioned whether his son and appointed successor, Kim Jong-il, would have the stature to command the loyalty of other senior officials and the 1.1 million-strong armed forces. The reclusive Kim Jong-il, 59, has done little to dispel these doubts. Meanwhile, his tolerance of small farmers' markets and sporadic efforts to improve relations with the United States, Japan, and South Korea are widely viewed as desperate acts meant to save the country from economic implosion.
Still reeling from the loss of Soviet support and crippled by its own economic mismanagement, North Korea has also suffered since the mid-1990s from droughts and floods that have contributed to chronic food shortages. Famine has killed "approximately a million" people since 1995, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on North Korea's human rights record in 2000.
North Koreans have more to eat now than during the worst shortages, in 1997, largely because of international aid. The UN and private groups help feed 8 million of North Korea's 20 million people. Critics, however, say the regime misappropriates humanitarian aid. The Paris-based Medicins Sans Frontieres relief group quit working in North Korea in 1998, accusing Pyongyang of diverting food aid to government officials. Similarly, the UN Human Rights Committee accused Pyongyang in July 2001 of failing to take adequate measures to tackle the country's food problems.
On top of the food shortages, North Korea is facing an acute health care crisis. Foreign press reports suggest that the state-run health system has all but collapsed, hospitals lack adequate medicine and equipment, and clean water is in short supply because of electricity and chlorine shortages. Some 63 percent of North Korean children are stunted because of chronic undernourishment, according to a 1998 Unicef survey.
The government has tried to stave off economic collapse by bringing to the cities small farmers' markets, which have existed in the countryside for several years. It has also allowed foreign investors to set up factories in a free trade and special economic zone in the Rajin-Sonbong area.
Moreover, South Korean intelligence reported that technocrats in their 40s and 50s took up key posts in September in government agencies dealing with the economy, the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review reported in December. It is not yet clear, however, whether the reshuffle will lead to tangible economic reforms. In any case, the regime appears to be wary of carrying out broad reforms that could undermine its tight control of the country.
North Korea has also used its long-range missile and suspected nuclear weapons programs as bargaining chips to win aid and other concessions from the United States and Japan. Pyongyang pledged in 1999 to suspend ballistic missile tests and open to American inspection a suspected nuclear weapons facility north of the capital. In return, Washington agreed to ease sanctions and provide 100,000 tons of food aid. The negotiating progress came a year after North Korea launched a long-range missile that flew over northern Japan. Earlier concerns over North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program led to 1994 agreement under which a U.S.-led, multi-nation consortium is currently supplying North Korea with light-water nuclear reactors, which cannot be used to make atomic weapons. Pyongyang in return is scrapping existing nuclear reactors capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.
North Korea largely rebuffed efforts by Seoul in 2001 to improve bilateral relations in the wake of a landmark June 2000 summit in Pyongyang between Kim Jong-il and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Dae-jung. The lack of progress largely ended the few social exchanges and business deals that followed the summit.
North Korea is one of the most tightly controlled countries in the world. The regime denies North Koreans even the most basic rights, holds tens of thousands of political prisoners, and controls nearly all political, social, and economic groups and activities.
Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, and a small group of elites from the Korean Worker's Party (KWP) rule by decree, although little is known about the regime's inner workings. Kim formally is general secretary of the KWP, supreme military commander, and chairman of the National Defense Commission. The latter post is the "highest office of state," following the 1998 abolition of the presidency. Vice Marshall Jo Myong Rok, first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, is believed to be Kim's second-in-command.
The Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), or parliament, has little independent power. It meets only a few days each year to rubber-stamp the ruling elite's decisions. In an effort to provide a veneer of democracy, the government occasionally holds show elections for the SPA and provincial, city, and county bodies. All of the candidates belong to the KWP or to one of several small, pro-government "minority parties." The last SPA elections were in 1998.
Defectors and refugees have in recent years reported that the regime regularly executes political prisoners, repatriated defectors, military officers accused of espionage or other antigovernment acts, and other suspected dissidents, according to the U.S. State Department report. The regime has also executed prisoners for "ideological divergence," "opposing socialism," and other "counterrevolutionary crimes," the report added. The UN Human Rights Committee commended North Korea in July for cutting the number of offenses carrying the death penalty to 5 from 33. The committee noted, however, that four of the remaining offenses are largely political.
The UN human rights body also severely criticized the regime's harsh treatment of prisoners. It called on Pyongyang to allow international human rights groups into the country to verify the "many allegations of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and conditions and of inadequate medical care in reform institutions, prisons, and prison camps." Defectors say the regime holds some 150,000 political prisoners, while the South Korean government puts the figure at 200,000, the U.S. State Department report said. The number of ordinary prisoners is not known.
Foreign humanitarian groups estimate that up to 300,000 North Koreans have fled to China since 1995 to escape food shortages. Chinese authorities have returned many refugees to North Korea, where some have been executed, according to the U.S. State Department report. The government has also forcibly relocated "many tens of thousands" of North Koreans to the countryside from Pyongyang, particularly people considered politically unreliable, the U.S. State Department report said. In addition, authorities continue to restrict travel into Pyongyang, normally granting permission only for government business. At the same time, the government has in recent years eased internal controls that had required North Koreans to obtain passes to travel outside of their home villages.
Authorities rely on an extensive network of informers to expose dissidents and routinely carry out surprise security checks on homes and even entire communities, according to the U.S. State Department report. Pyongyang assigns to each North Korean a security rating that partly determines access to education, employment, and health services as well as place of residence. By some foreign estimates nearly half the population is considered either "wavering" or "hostile," the U.S. State Department report said, with the rest rated "core."
The government severely punishes North Koreans for worshipping in underground churches and requires all prayer and religious study to be supervised by state-controlled bodies, according to the U.S. State Department report. Foreign religious and human rights groups say that authorities have killed, beaten, arrested, and detained in prison camps members of underground churches.
North Korean authorities control all trade unions, which they use to monitor workers, mobilize them to meet production targets, and provide them with health care, schooling, and welfare services. The regime does not permit strikes, collective bargaining, or other basic organized labor activities. Many work sites are dangerous, and the rate of industrial accidents reportedly is high, the U.S. State Department report said.
Authorities subject North Koreans to intensive political and ideological indoctrination through the mass media, schools, and work and neighborhood associations. They face a steady onslaught of propaganda from radios and televisions that are pretuned to receive only government stations. Foreign visitors and academics say that children receive mandatory military training and indoctrination at their schools. The regime also routinely orchestrates mass marches, rallies, and performances involving thousands of people that glorify the two Kims and the state.
The government uses a vague guiding philosophy of juche, or "I myself," to justify its dictatorship and rabid efforts to root out dissent. Credited to former President Kim Il-sung, juche emphasizes national self-reliance and stresses that the collective will of the people is embodied in a supreme leader. Opposing the leader means opposing the national interest. Taking this to the extreme, authorities have punished people for offenses as trivial as accidentally defacing photographs of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il, according to the U.S. State Department report.
Few women have reached the higher ranks of the ruling KWP or government. Little is known about how problems such as domestic violence or workplace discrimination may affect North Korean women.
The government prohibits private property and directs and controls nearly all economic activity. Authorities have in recent years, however, allowed families to keep small private gardens and farmers to sell produce at small daily markets. Prior to the economic collapse that began in the early 1990s, the government provided all North Koreans with free food, housing, clothing, and medical care. Today, it barely provides these essentials.