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Cracks in Asia's Darkest Bastion

For North Korean leaders, race against isolation and decline includes risks of opening one of the world's most closed societies to change

EVEN though he is a model student at an elite school, Tak Gwong Song has never heard of Disneyland, Elvis Presley, or man landing on the moon.

But, as a North Korean, he believes the United States is a hostile enemy and that Americans "are wolves in human form." And he says North Korea is a "worker's paradise."

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As an example, he points to a Mercedes Benz, one of many used by only top officials in the capital, Pyongyang. The car, he states without a flinch, was made in North Korea.

"We have no need to complain," he adds.

Indeed, it is difficult to find anyone in North Korea who has any complaints, except about the US or South Korea. A whole generation of North Koreans since the 1950-53 Korean War has been raised with virtually no direct exposure to the outside world and with intense instruction on the ideas of the "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung.

"North Koreans have nothing to compare themselves to," states an east European diplomat in Pyongyang. "Their desires have been defined and contained."

Communist-run North Korea survives today as one of the world's most far-reaching experiments in social engineering. The lack of most modern amenities in this hermit-like nation is exceeded by the apparent lack of knowledge or desire of them. "We have nothing to envy," goes a much-emphasized slogan of Kim Jong Il, the son of the "Great Leader."

Despite the fall of the Soviet empire and China's recent decision to establish ties with South Korea, two events that have shaken North Korea's economy, Kim Il Sung and his communist Workers' Party maintain a Stalinist-like resolve to mold the perceptions of 20 million people into believing they are better off than anyone else.

"We will always put ideological education ahead of economic growth," says Kim Dal Hyon, deputy premier of North Korea.

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Even a whisper of innocent dissent, easily detected by a web of official surveillance, can land a North Korean in one of the nation's many detention camps, where there are 100,000 to 150,000 "political" prisoners, according to US and South Korean estimates.

North Korean officials use the term "human-remaking" to describe their efforts to rid people of "old" thinking and instill them with the unique philosophy of Kim Il Sung, known as juche.

Meaning literally "I myself" but often translated as national self-reliance, juche is based on the "discovery" by Kim that human beings want independence. This "immortal" ideology is a mix of Marxism and the lessons learned by Kim during his days as an alleged guerrilla fighter against Japan's long occupation of Korea.

Juche is, of course, open to interpretation by Kim. The junior Kim is destined to inherit the mantle of leadership from his father, according to juche. And despite the priority on self-reliance, a 558-foot tower dedicated to juche in 1982 uses a Japanese elevator. In fact, much of the nation's infrastructure is based on Soviet, Chinese, or pre-war Japanese technology.

But most of all, juche has provided a legitimacy for the elder Kim, to help prevent harsh judgment on the performance of his regime.

In factories, party leaders yell at workers through loudspeakers to make them toil harder. Brass bands play for construction workers to motivate them to build faster. In an opera for the elder Kim's birthday in April, one act was a ballet with a dozen men, wearing hard-hats and boots, leaping and pirouetting in front of a steel-mill backdrop.

Twice a year, about 100,000 youngsters perform in a grand show of formation acrobatics, known as "mass games," inside Kim Il Sung stadium. Half the stadium is used just to display images of Kim, his son, and their slogans.

North Koreans boast that they are free of taxes, hunger, rent, and unemployment. They even seek, to some degree, freedom from cash, although the currency, won, is available.

In interviews, even without officials nearby, North Koreans seem to wear mental shields against the questions of foreigners. All have been warned to beware of cultural "poisoning" by "pagan" Western values.

At the port of Najin, for instance, workers are shown cartoon pictures of how to spot foreign spies. Electric fences have been installed along the coastline, either to keep out foreigners or, perhaps someday, to keep North Koreans in.

To help convince the people that South Korean or US troops might invade at any time, officials have put up bunkers, spotlights, tunnels, and artillery mounts in many parts of the countryside.

But, these days, the only real threat to North Korea is economic isolation. "It's a new international game," says Kim Sung Chik, vice-chairman for external economic cooperation.

Cut off from most of its barter trade with ex-Communist nations, the North is short on oil, food, hard cash, and friends. Its foreign trade dropped 24 percent last year, according to South Korean data, and it has defaulted on its $6 billion debt. "We are facing difficulties," Deputy Premier Kim admits.

Not only has it been forced to seek foreign investment, trade, and aid from the "capitalist" West, and thus violate a juche tenet against being at the mercy of marketplace "whims," but North Korea also has opened talks with its enemy, South Korea, and opened its nuclear plants for inspections. And this closed society may also be threatened by the return of thousands of North Koreans who were studying or working abroad and had to be recalled, bringing back with them "unhealthy" knowledge of a better life outside.

In addition, when the younger, less-respected Kim takes over, many observers say he may be seriously challenged by some in the party elite and military who could demand faster reform.

"The government is nervous," says the east European diplomat. He says dozens of factories have been shut down for more than a year due to fuel shortages. Meat rations are low. Many people receive only two meals a day.

Officials are in a quandary over how much to reform and open up at the risk of massive disenchantment among the people once they learn that life on the outside is not as bad as they have been told. But in a race against decline, they know that a lack of reform may be just as risky.

Officials in Pyongyang blame the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe not on the ideology itself but on the leaders. They say "the jockeys and not the horse" lost the race.

During a train ride through North Korea, it is easy for visitors to spot the new economic distress. A shortage of grain has forced many people to pick leaves off bushes to eat. Few homes have enough heat. Guards are stationed at the coal mines to prevent theft.

Almost every inch of this dry, stark land is tilled, even up to the top of steep slopes, risking erosion of topsoil. Each village appears to have only one tractor. Some farmers plow with human yokes. Others carry manure fertilizer to their fields by hand. More women and children are now forced to work the fields, and more work at night. And with no vehicles, rural folk have to walk everywhere. Bicycles are few.

Talks of economic reform began in 1984 with little effect. In the past few years, however, talk has led to some limited free enterprise.

One experiment in economic freedom can be found at the Patriotic Moran Garment Factory in the middle of Pyongyang. Begun last year with money from "patriotic" Koreans in Japan, some 1,000 workers are sewing ready-made suits for export to Japanese stores.

Unlike most North Koreans, the seamstresses can earn up to 40 percent more if they exceed standards for speed and quality. But general manager Jon Song Won admits that the extra pay may not mean much in a society where consumer goods are scare or shoddy.

And when asked if the workers might someday complain about work conditions and go on strike, he laughs. "They don't even know the word strike," he says.

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