Sunday, March 28, 2010

North Korean confidence crisis

North Koreans who have recently fled to China say many of their fellow citizens are losing faith in the regime of Kim Jong Il after a disastrous currency revaluation that wiped out savings and left food scarcer than at any time since the famine of the mid-1990s, when millions died.

"People are outspoken. They complain," said a 56-year-old female defector from the border city of Musan who gave her name as Li Mi Hee. Lowering her voice to a whisper, she said, "My son thinks that something might happen. I don't know what, but I can tell you this: People have opinions. ... It is not like the 1990s when people just died without saying what they thought."

Li was one of several North Korean women from different parts of the country interviewed this month near the border with China. They told of panic in the wake of the bungled economic move, which left even a staple such as rice in the hands of black marketeers and sent the communist government scrambling to repair the damage.

"The whole economic structure has collapsed because of the currency reform," said James Kim, president of the Yanbian University of Science and Technology in Yanji, China, who is in the process of setting up a similar school in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. "It is a very difficult situation for them. ... It might end up being worse than the 1990s."

68-year-old Kim Jong Il, reportedly suffering the effects of a stroke, is expected to hand the reins of power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un. In the last few months, officials of the ruling Korean Workers' Party have been quietly told that the younger Kim is the designated successor; many expect his photograph soon to be hung next to the mandatory portraits of Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung.

"If his father is doing such a bad job, what can we expect of his son?" Li said.

Trying to deflect public anger, the government reportedly executed the senior bureaucrat who was the architect of the currency revaluation. South Korea's Yonhap news service reported Pak Nam Ki, 77, chief of planning and finance for the Korean Workers' Party, had been shot by a firing squad in Pyongyang after being charged with "deliberately ruining the national economy."

"They apologized, but it didn't do us any good. People already had lost all their money," said Song Hee, a 17-year-old from Musan who fled last month. "My friends would leave too if they could. They see no future in North Korea," Song Hee said nervously.

[Los Angeles Times]

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