Window on N. Korea has rosiest of views

Tour: At a resort open to outsiders, visitors glimpse only a manufactured reality the regime wants the world to see.

April 18, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea - Here in the idealized version of North Korea, citizens wear new, brightly colored clothes, tour guides appear happy and well-nourished, and everybody worships Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung, 91 years old this week and still president despite being dead.

This seaside mountain resort, developed and operated by the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai Group, has for five years served as one of the few windows on this isolated totalitarian state. And after more than a half-century of isolated existence, North Korea remains a puzzle to outsiders, even when it allows visitors to peer inside.

As American officials prepare to sit down with North Koreans for talks in Beijing next week, they know they are dealing with two North Koreas - the one that the Pyongyang regime manufactures and allows people to glimpse, and the one that it hides from view.

A three-day tour of Mount Kumgang resembles a trip to the zoo to see a country in captivity. Tour buses carry visitors on a paved road lined by high barbed-wire fencing. Young soldiers in crisp olive-green uniforms, pistols holstered, stand rigidly at key points along the bus routes, including the few fence openings - as much to discourage villagers from crossing over to this alternate reality as to prevent tourists from getting out.

Beyond the fence lies a vast, undeveloped landscape of brown earth, marshes and, fixed in the distance, mountains. A few hundred yards from the road are rows of low-slung concrete block houses, their shingled roofs peaking above fences and berms meant to keep visitors from seeing more than they are supposed to. At night, the fences become superfluous: The entire countryside disappears into a pitch black, devoid of electric lights.

It is difficult to know whether the manufactured reality - that of a nation of 22 million people ready to die for their leaders - is as illusory as the one Saddam Hussein cultivated in his Iraq, a nation that now has many fallen statues.

Controlling hand

Here, where thousands of statues have been erected honoring Kim Il Sung, the regime has had decades more practice at the art of indoctrination. The government's not-so-invisible hand distorts what can be seen and heard.

Villagers are provided with clean sweat pants, coats and work clothes because they might be seen by tourists, according to Chinese-born, ethnic Koreans working at the resort. The park guides - the only locals authorized to speak with visitors - admit they have a little more to eat than the average North Korean because of their high-visibility jobs, and they speak the political mythology of diehard loyalty to the regime.

"The Great Leader has devoted himself to our country," said Oh Yong Jin, 46, a park ranger smartly dressed in a gray fisherman's cap and green overcoat, speaking of the late Kim Il Sung in the present tense on Tuesday, his 91st birthday. "So now is a time to remember him, to never forget. Like the sun never disappears, the Great Leader is always in our hearts."

But miles beyond the barbed-wire fences that ring the resort, beyond the view of foreign tourists, far larger numbers of North Koreans dress in tatters, eat just a few hundred grams of food per day and, with brave gestures, show that reverence for their leaders is not monolithic.

"I've seen graffiti against them: `We reject Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il. The government has to come down,'" said one Chinese-Korean worker who had visited relatives in North Korea closer to the Chinese border. "There's no electricity, even in mines. All the factories are closed. ... The people can't eat, they can't live well. They're going to have a lot of resentment toward the system."

Kim's birthday is a two-day holiday in the North, and it is one of the few times a year families receive meat - fish this year for the coastal village where Oh and his fellow guide, a woman named Soo Hyun, live. Soo Hyun, wearing makeup and a perfect smile, acknowledged that North Koreans have little to eat, blaming American economic sanctions for her country's hardships. But she said her people will not give up easily in the face of U.S. pressure.

"It's true, right now it's very difficult. The Dear Leader is also suffering with the people," she said, referring to Kim Jong Il. "Because we have the Dear Leader, we have hope in our hearts that we will be able to overcome any hardships."

But even in her touched-up version of North Korea, subtle hints lend credence to Korea experts and workers here who predict Pyongyang's grip on the population will slip once it loses its choke-hold on information.

"When I first came here ... the people didn't know their situation," said another Chinese-Korean worker who has visited other areas of the North. "They laughed at us. They said, 'You're here to make money, aren't you? Here the government gives us everything.' They were poor, but they didn't know it. Now, they don't say it, but after five years, their thinking is changing. ... "

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