Approximately 57% of North Koreans suffer from malnutrition, including 45% of all North Korean children under five. By some estimates, as many as 2 million people have already died during a decade of flood, crop failure and famine. North Koreans have been forced to supplement their meager rations by eating rats and snakes; there have been numerous credible reports of cannibalism in the poorest areas. During all this, Great General Kim Jong Il has acquired a library of over 20,000 videos; his favorites include Daffy Duck, Elizabeth Taylor, and the Friday the 13th series. In 1998 he spent $20 million - one-fifth the aid pledged to North Korea by the UN - on 200 Class S Mercedes limousines: since 1994 he has been the single largest buyer of cognac from the Hennessy company. He has recently come to prominence for his active nuclear and chemical weapons development programs, and is a charter member of George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil." Yet for all this, Kim Jong Il is widely feared yet little known.
North Korean schoolchildren are taught that the "Dear Leader" was born on a sacred mountain, his birth heralded by double rainbows and strangely singing birds. (The evidence suggests that he was actually born in a hovel near Vladivostock, Siberia). Like Kim-Il Song, his father, Kim is venerated as a near-demigod. Those who are less than enthusiastic frequently find themselves imprisoned in gulags which are considered among the worst in the world. Torture, rape and starvation are regular occurrences; pregnant women are regularly subjected to forced abortions, and prisoners are used as guinea pigs in chemical and biological experiments. Following in his father's footsteps, Kim has declared that traitors and "enemies to the state" must be rooted out "to the third generation;" more often than not, entire families are imprisoned for the perceived sins of one member. The penal code stipulates capital punishment and confiscation of assets for a wide variety of "crimes against the revolution," including defection, attempted defection, slander of the policies of the party or State, listening to foreign broadcasts, writing "reactionary" letters, and possessing reactionary printed matter.
Despite these obstacles, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have sought to escape the famine and terror. Most have made their way to China, North Korea's neighbor. There they suffer a different kind of oppression. Many women are forced into prostitution or arranged marriages to survive, while the Chinese government regularly repatriates refugees despite UN concerns about their safety. (In a sleight of hand which will be all too familiar to American immigration rights activists, China claims that the North Koreans are "economic refugees" and thus not entitled to political asylum).
Distribution of food depends on one's classification: "core" citizens (members of the party and the military) get priority, while "wavering" and "hostile" elements get whatever is left over. While North Korea has been one of the world's largest recipients of emergency foreign aid, little of that aid has reached the most needy. Those organizations which have sought a more equitable distribution have been barred from working in the region, and accused of being "spies" who seek to undermine the Dear Leader. South Korea has become increasingly reluctant to grant refugee status to those North Koreans who make their way to "freedom" - under their "sunshine" policy, they have sought to improve relations with North Korea and have downplayed human rights complaints. Of an estimated 300,000 North Korean refugees in China, barely 300 were admitted into South Korea in 2000.
Kim-Jong Il may be eccentric, but he is not stupid. The North Korean People's Army is considered one of the world's most well-trained and, with over 1 million troops (and 7 million more in reserve militias), he could throw the Korean peninsula into chaos were he to take his father's cue and launch a sudden attack on South Korea. To make matters more urgent, evidence suggests that North Korea has several nuclear warheads, along with missiles capable of reaching the western United States. In 2000 North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; by 2010 it could have as many as 100 nuclear weapons. There have also been reports of experimentation with smallpox, anthrax and bubonic plague, as well as mustard gas, nerve gas and botulin toxins. Approximately 50% of North Korea's annual export income is derived from the sale of missile technology and weaponry, largely to Middle Eastern countries.
Many scholars consider Kim-Jong Il a greater threat to world peace than the late and unlamented Sadaam Hussein. While his adherence to his father's isolationist "Juche" policies has kept him from widespread intervention in neighboring areas, he has certainly proven willing to sell weapons of mass destruction to anyone who can provide desperately-needed hard currency. Others fear that his WMD programs will lead South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear arms programs; still others fear a major refugee crisis after Kim's fall, as millions of starving North Koreans head for the newly-opened borders. It is not clear how the Dear Leader will end his career, but chances are that it won't be pretty.