N. Korean de­fec­tor: Kim Jong-il called ‘crazy’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY BEN BIRN­BAUM

SEOUL | A prom­i­nent North Korean de­fec­tor says that the to­tal­i­tar­ian regime’s of­fi­cials have be­gun to voice dis­con­tent with Kim Jong-il, go­ing so far as to call the “Dear Leader” crazy.

Kang Cheol-hwan, who writes for one of South Korea’s largest news­pa­pers, the Cho­sun Ilbo, says North Korean of­fi­cials have be­come crit­i­cal of Mr. Kim since his regime over­hauled the coun­try’s pa­per cur­rency in De­cem­ber 2009. Cit­i­zens were given less than a week to ex­change a strictly lim­ited num­ber of old notes for new ones.

“There has been a great change af­ter the cur­rency re­form,” Mr. Kang told vis­it­ing re­porters. “Be­fore the re­form, the gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials we met with would be very an­gry if we ac­tu­ally blamed the North Korean leader in any way, but af­ter­wards, even they call him crazy.”

Shrouded in se­crecy, North Korea is one of Asia’s most eco­nom­i­cally chal­lenged coun­tries, plagued by chronic food and fuel short­ages, dwin­dling in­dus­trial stock and shrink­ing farm­land.

On May 25, Mr. Kim met with Chinese Pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao in Bei­jing for the third time in just more than a year, un­der­lin­ing the im­por­tance of their ties as Bei­jing presses its com­mu­nist ally to re­form its ail­ing econ­omy, the Associated Press re­ported.

Bei­jing is North Korea’s most vi­tal diplo­matic and eco­nomic sup­porter and is des­per­ate to pre­vent a chaotic col­lapse of Mr. Kim’s iso­lated regime, which again is ap­peal­ing for in­ter­na­tional food as­sis­tance fol­low­ing bit­ter win­ter weather. The trip comes as a U.S. del­e­ga­tion vis­its North Korea to as­sess its food needs.

North Korea has aban­doned pre­vi­ous at­tempts at eco­nomic re­form and it re­mains un­clear how much 69-year-old Mr. Kim, or his anointed suc­ces­sor, son Kim Jong-un, would be will­ing to change, the AP re­ported.

The com­mu­nist nation’s dis­as­trous at­tempts at cur­rency re­form and the pres­sure of in­ter­na­tional nu­clear sanc­tions have put the regime on the de­fen­sive, and that might make it less likely to take risks.

What’s more, Mr. Kang es­ti­mated that “up to 90 per­cent” of the North Korean pop­u­la­tion is now anti-gov­ern­ment.

“Even the sol­diers are say­ing among them­selves that [since the eco­nomic dis­tress has caused some of their par­ents to com­mit sui­cide], ‘If I can’t pro­tect my own par­ents, how can I pro­tect my coun­try?’ “ he said. “So I would say the North Ko- rean regime is fac­ing a cri­sis these days. Ex­cept for the top rul­ing classes, peo­ple no longer trust the regime.”

Mr. Kang de­clined to name the North Korean of­fi­cials who had crit­i­cized Kim Jong-il but said they are among the 1,000plus of­fi­cials who visit China ev­ery month.

“If they are al­lowed to go to China, they are of con­sid­er­able stature,” he said.

As a child, Mr. Kang spent a decade in the bru­tal Yodok con­cen­tra­tion camp af­ter a fam­ily mem­ber was ac­cused of trea­son. He de­fected in 1992 and coau­thored a blis­ter­ing ac­count of Yodok in “The Aquar­i­ums of Py­ongyang.”

“In the past, peo­ple were sent to the con­cen­tra­tion camps if they said the wrong thing, but this is no longer the case be­cause now ev­ery­one is say­ing the same thing [against the gov­ern­ment],” he said.

“So for peo­ple to be sent to the con­cen­tra­tion camps, they ac­tu­ally have to have done some­thing - for ex­am­ple, to try to de­fect or to watch a South Korean movie. It shows that the level of dis­con­tent has be­come very wide­spread.”

Lee Min-bok, an­other prom­i­nent de­fec­tor, agreed that change is afoot in the North.

“Peo­ple no longer do what they are told be­cause they per­ceive the gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda as lies. And when they are told to do some­thing, they refuse to do it,” he said.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mar­bles miss­ing? North Korean of­fi­cials have be­come crit­i­cal of leader Kim Jong-il, shown dur­ing a visit to a fruit farm in a photo re­leased by the Korean Cen­tral News Agency, since his regime over­hauled the coun­try’s pa­per cur­rency in De­cem­ber 2009, ac­cord­ing to Kang Cheol-hwan, a North Korean de­fec­tor.

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