Despair pushing North Korea to the brink
By James Kynge and Andrew Ward

Published: April 18 2003 19:45 | Last Updated: April 18 2003 19:45

The Tumen river, a silver thread meandering over shingle not 50m wide, marks the boundary between two worlds. On the south side in North Korea, the world's last redoubt of Stalinism, a patrol of 15 soldiers combed the river bank this week, prodding the reed beds for starving people trying to escape.

On the northern bank is the object of the would-be refugees' dreams: China. The small town of Tumen, an impoverished backwater by Chinese standards, is a bustling cornucopia for North Koreans. The markets are full of rice, vegetables and meat; the roads throng with cars; chimneys issue smoke.

But viewed from halfway across the Tumen bridge, the town of Namyang on the North Korean side appeared an exhausted, desiccated place. During half an hour's observation this week, the only signs of life - apart from the menacing army patrol - were one car sputtering up an unpaved road and a man ambling down a road.

"I don't think anyone lives in those apartment blocks anymore," said a single Chinese border guard, standing by a red line marking the border that separates Asia's rising power from its enigmatic neighbour. "The factories have all shut. The people have nothing to do, and only the officials are being paid."

There was a time when China and North Korea were allies, as close as "lips and teeth". But the chasm that has opened between them is measured not only in material deprivation and human suffering, but also in a divergence of strategic and diplomatic goals.

Aspects of this gulf were evident yesterday when Pyongyang dropped a diplomatic bombshell just days before it was due to join negotiations with its arch enemy, the US, in the Chinese capital, Beijing. North Korea announced that it had already begun reprocessing some 8,000 spent fuel rods, an essential step in resuming the country's efforts to build a nuclear arsenal, although doubts remain as to the truth of the statement.

The US and China - which opposed each other in the Korean war that ended in 1953 - are united in their determination to prevent Kim Jong-il, North Korea's leader, from realising his ambition to turn his famine-scoured nation into a possessor of nuclear weapons.

Washington's main aim in next week's Beijing talks - the status of which is now in doubt - was to initiate a dialogue that would keep North Korea from pursuing the very step it says it has now taken.

Even before Pyongyang's announcement, the prospects for the talks were uncertain. South Korea's new ambassador to the US said the negotiations were set to be an "arduous, long process".

"This is not going to be a cakewalk," said Han Sung-joo, who was South Korea's foreign minister during the previous Korean nuclear crisis, which culminated in a 1994 agreement to mothball Pyongyang's nuclear programme in return for fuel and other aid from the US. North Korea reneged on that pact by covertly pursuing a nuclear programme.

"We still don't know whether North Korea wants to become a nuclear state and all it's doing is trying to buy time . . . or if they would like to make a deal," Mr Han said. If the talks go ahead next week, the stakes will be extremely high. If it becomes clear that the two sides have irreconcilable differences, the negotiations could break down at an early stage - sending the crisis lurching back towards conflict. "There doesn't seem to be a safety net in place to rescue the situation if diplomacy fails," says Scott Snyder, Seoul representative of the Asia Foundation, a US think-tank.

Lee Dong-bok, visiting professor of North Korean studies at Myongji university in Seoul, says the meeting in Beijing would feature "talks about talks", in which the three sides negotiated the agenda of future, more substantive meetings.

The US was expected to demand an immediate halt to North Korea's nuclear programme as a condition of further talks taking place. If that condition is met, Washington may seek a deal under which Pyongyang agreed to dismantle permanently its nuclear facilities, verified by intrusive inspections. The US might also demand a reduction in conventional forces and an improvement in human rights, analysts say.

However, they also warn that North Korea is reluctant to give up its nuclear capability, which provides an otherwise weak country with power and security. Pyongyang has demanded a non-aggression pact from the US in return for abandoning its nuclear ambitions and is also expected to ask for economic assistance.

"There is absolutely no way that Kim Jong-il will give up his nuclear programme. It is the only thing he has. The whole economy, the whole hierarchy is geared towards it," says one foreigner who travels regularly to Pyongyang and has met many senior members of the government there.

Washington is determined to avoid a repeat of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which it says would amount to a cave-in to nuclear blackmail.

The bleak outlook for diplomacy is complemented by the picture obtained by visitors to China's border region with North Korea, one of the few areas from which western journalists - banned by Pyongyang from reporting freely within the country - can form impressions of the secretive state.

Several people with special permission to visit North Korea said yesterday that the country appeared to be preparing for war. "They are all talking about war with America," said one visitor who returned from Rajin Sombong, the country's only special economic zone. "They are all going around yelling 'war with America', 'overthrow America'." Another visitor, who declined to be identified, said young men and some young women were being drafted into the country's militia, a support force for the country's vast standing army. "They all think there will be war with the US and they seem to really believe it," said one ethnic Korean Chinese citizen who returned this week.

Exacerbating tensions within the country is an economy in free-fall towards mass starvation, according to other recent visitors. Price reforms launched in July last year have failed, sparking inflation and the sharp depreciation of the national currency.

A significant decline in the tonnage of food aid that Pyongyang receives from the international donor community has increased the number of people unable either to buy food staples or to benefit from government handouts. "The Workers' party takes the [international] food aid for themselves and the poor hungry people don't get any of it," said one North Korean who recently fled to China's border area.

The result of this gathering gloom is that the numbers of Koreans trying to flee their country has grown, eliciting a reciprocal response from the border patrols up and down the Tumen river. One North Korean escapee, cowering in a safe house in the wooded valleys on the Chinese side of the border, was living in fear of being sent back by the Chinese police.

She had married a Chinese citizen during her stay in China - a fact that marks her out in the eyes of the North Korean guards, who reserve particularly harsh punishment for three types of repatriated refugee: those who were in the military, those who have had contact with Christian missionaries in China and those who marry Chinese.

"They [the North Korean authorities] believe that marriage with Chinese citizens dilutes the purity of the Korean race," said one person familiar with the situation. "Such refugees, if they are returned to North Korea, are usually executed or sentenced to long terms in prison."