A desperate food shortage has pushed most North Koreans to the brink of starvation, fueling refugee flight to China and the beginnings of popular protests, a North Korean defector said Monday.
In a tearful account of the grim life in the world's most secretive, isolated Communist nation, Yo Man Chol, a 48-year-old former security force captain, said people are dying in the fields and that support for Kim Il Sung, the authoritarian regime's leader, is rapidly declining.
The Kim regime, whose suspected development of nuclear weapons has attracted international concern, had placed the nation on a war alert but recently stopped full-scale military exercises, he said.
(South Korean President Kim Young Sam ordered his nation's 650,000 troops on a 24-hour alert Monday after unusual military moves by the north, including amassing more soldiers and weapons at the tense inter-Korean border than are allowed by international agreements.)
Yo, flanked at a packed news conference by his wife and three children, said that so many North Koreans are near starvation that the normally repressive government has begun issuing internal travel permits to people to search for food.
Using such a permit, Yo made his way to the Chinese border and headed for the city of Shenyang after crossing the frozen Yalu River under cover of darkness with his family six weeks ago. He then defected to the South Korean Consulate in Hong Kong.
"We decided it was better to die trying to escape the north than of starvation," said Yo, who was working as a driver in the port city of Hamhung at the time.
The ex-security official said he also defected because he had been blacklisted in 1989 for taking a bribe in a case involving a traffic accident.
His daughter, Kum Ju, 20, was fired from her job as a typist because of his deed, and he worried his children would have no future.
Yo said "uprisings must be imminent" over the food crisis. Most people have been forced to subsist on nothing more than pickled vegetables or one bowl of corn porridge a day since last August, when the strapped government sharply reduced food supplies. He also said that several people in his apartment building had died of starvation and that people have begun demanding that military food supplies be released to the public, although such demands are treated harshly.
One woman in a neighboring village was reportedly executed for crying, "I wish there was a war!" while standing in line at a food supply center, because she was fed up with the lack of food, Yo said, noting, "People are eating corn paste that they use to put wallpaper on their living room walls. They live on pine tree bark. Old parents are a burden because it only means one more mouth to feed."
His wife, Lee Ok Kum, 45, said tearfully: "At night, my children would ask for a bowl of gruel to stop the hunger, but I have nothing to give them. I am a mother, but I couldn't feed my children."
The couple's elder son, Kum Ryong, 18, said most students are so tired from malnutrition that they lie at their desks with their heads down and doze off.
As a result of the collapsing economy, Kim's personality cult is on the wane, Yo said. Although nearly all North Koreans used to wear a lapel badge with Kim's picture on it, only about 20% do today. "Patriotism is a thing of the past," he said. "You can't riot in public, but people do it quietly. People talk at home."
He said North Korean radio dials are welded down to prevent listeners from picking up overseas news broadcasts. But several people have learned to fix the dials and listen to South Korean radio at night under their blankets. "When we heard South Korean farmers were fighting against rice imports, we knew they had enough rice," he said.
Yo said he had no concrete information about Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. He said he had heard there was a test blast of a nuclear bomb the size of a match head, as well as test firings of multiple-stage missiles in the northern area of Hamgyong, but he provided no details.
After arriving in Seoul on Saturday, Yo and his family were given a $24,000 donation to help them start their new life by an anonymous South Korean who defected from the north during the Korean War. "My wish is to be of some assistance to poor North Koreans, to help free them from poverty," Yo said.