In the North Korean city of Chongjin, destitute citizens practice the rituals of fear with nearly religious fervor. The air-raid sirens sound regularly, signaling residents to block their windows with blankets and stay indoors. Local officials make sure every household has stashed emergency supplies in rucksacks in case the call comes to evacuate to underground shelters carved into a nearby hillside. An essential item is the homemade gas mask that women sew from plastic bags and strips of cloth. North Koreans have no duct tape.
They are accustomed to warnings that the American bombs could at any moment begin falling on them like rain. North Korean despot Kim Jong Il presides over a ragpicker's Sparta where 22 million people are conditioned to believe they are always on the precipice of war. But daily propaganda broadcasts have been more hysterical of late. A woman who fled Chongjin for the relative haven of China three weeks ago says the standoff with the U.S. over the North's nuclear-arms program has everyone mindful of Kim's dictum that "the earth doesn't need to exist if there is no North Korea." The woman's daughter recently came home from school in tears: "Her teacher told her war could break out in three days."
State-sponsored paranoia has an Orwellian purpose. Fear occupies the mind, distracting North Koreans from their chronic hunger and the fact that there is less to eat now than there was six months ago when the nuclear crisis began. U.S. officials, seeking leverage to force Kim to abandon his nuclear-weapons program, have for months been mulling ways to impose new economic sanctions that would cut off the North from sources of hard currency, such as its international arms sales. After the North in January withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the matter was referred to the U.N. Security Council, but it is not yet on that body's agenda. Last week, Japanese government officials indicated that if Pyongyang provokes its neighbors by test-firing a ballistic missile, Tokyo could help sponsor a new "coalition of the willing," including the U.S., that would crack down on the North through sanctionswith or without the imprimatur of the U.N. (Japanese and U.S. officials later denied that such a plan was in the works.)
Even though there is now no unified effort to squeeze the North, shortages are growing worse. Refugees and traders who regularly cross its border with China say some regions of North Korea are once again threatened by a famine like the one that killed an estimated two million people in the mid-1990s. The country's failed Stalinist economy has a gross domestic product that is less than 5% of neighboring South Korea's. Desperate economic reforms last year cut subsidies to factories, increased wages and raised food prices, but so far the only result has been inflation. The country is woefully short of electricity needed to run irrigation pumps for agriculture and lacks cash to buy fertilizer. North Koreawhich ostensibly hews to an isolationist policy called juche, or self-reliancehas been surviving on international food handouts for almost a decade.
But the belligerence of North Korean leaders and heavy demand for assistance by other countries, such as Afghanistan, have resulted in a sharp slide in food aid reaching the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Last month, the U.N.'s World Food Program (WFP), one of the North's largest aid providers, had so little grain it could feed only a third of the 4.2 million children and others it says need help the most. Meanwhile, the North Korean government's own food-distribution agency is able to provide only 270 grams of food per person per dayless than half what is considered sufficient to survive. The U.S. last December halted fuel-oil shipments to the North after its nuclear weapons program was revealed. The Bush Administration insists it is not cutting off food for fear of sparking a humanitarian crisis, but donations have been reduced until there is better monitoring to ensure it is getting to the neediest people. Japan, which shipped 600,000 tons of rice through the WFP in 2000, suspended shipments in 2001 and refuses to restart them. The European Union, too, has reduced donations since the nuclear crisis began. "This country is in a very desperate situation," says Rick Corsino, the WFP's North Korea director. "It's very, very vulnerable at the moment to any external shocks."
Even South Korea, which has been trying to maintain friendly relations, is reducing handouts. After funneling at least $2 billion in aid and investment to the DPRK over the past five years, it plans to ship only 100,000 tons of grain this year, a quarter of last year's largesse, although a plan to give more is under consideration. "Although we pursue the present policy of engaging the North significantly, it is hard to pursue it vigorously if North Korea is not responding constructively or positively in renouncing its nuclear-weapons development," says Lee Tae Sik, South Korea's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
In the DPRK's poorest corner, the northeast, conditions are growing dire. Lee Sung Mi, a middle-aged refugee who risked arrest by border guards to get to China last month, says she saw a man who starved to death at the Chongjin train station before she left, something she had not seen since the famine of 1996-97. Lee, who declined to give her real name, has been diagnosed with breast cancer; she pulls up her black sweater to expose breasts mottled with dark splotches. There are no treatments, no medicine in her country. "Things are already as bad as the famine years," says Lee's mother, who walked out with her. "And it will get worse."
Certainly the nuclear crisis is escalating. This month, the U.S. stationed 24 bombers within range of the DPRK and dispatched an aircraft-carrier battle group to the waters between Japan and the Korean peninsula after North Korean jet fighters intercepted an American spy plane. In another apparent move to deter Pyongyang adventurism while the U.S. is occupied with Iraq, Washington sent six Stealth jets to participate in joint U.S.-South Korean war games. Japan got into the act by adding a sophisticated surveillance ship to the waters off the peninsula. Meanwhile, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said last week that the North could develop a new source of weapons-grade nuclear material, enriched uranium, within months, much sooner than previous estimates. The North already possesses spent fuel rods from which plutonium can be extracted to make bombs.
With no solution in sight, the Bush Administration and conservative Washing-ton lawmakers continue to look for ways to persuade Kim to abandon nukes. Sanctions are an imperfect option. Years of economic pressure on Iraq punished the country's innocent civilians but did not topple Saddam Hussein. The same kind of pressure, applied unilaterally by the U.S., is likely to be even less effective against North Korea, because trade between the two countries is already severely restricted. Last year, American businesses sold just $26 million in goods to the North, compared with $145 million in sales to Cuba.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials think there may be ways to strangle North Korea's ruling Úlite, who live relatively comfortable lives in Pyongyang, without adding to suffering in the countryside. In January, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators proposed a bill to further tighten trade restrictions. The bill also calls for the U.S. to interdict North Korea's missile sales, which netted the country an estimated $100 million to $300 million in hard currency last year. A naval blockade, regarded as an act of war, would probably require international support. Kim says the imposition of sanctions alone would trigger armed conflict.
Another option: Follow the moneyand freeze it. Kim is believed to have billions of dollars stashed in bank accounts in Switzerland and possibly more in accounts in Austria, China and Russia. North Korean businesses in Europesome suspected of acting as fronts for missile saleshave millions in overseas accounts as well, according to Balbina Hwang, a North Korea expert at Washington's Heritage Foundation. Says Hwang: "These financial networks would be one of the best and most effective ways of squeezing the North Koreans."
Almost any attempt to throttle the North will require the participation of China and South Korea, two of North Korea's top trading partners. Neither Beijing nor Seoul is willing to go along with sanctions, preferring to keep the North engaged, in hopes that they can eventually be brought to the bargaining table for talks with the U.S. Even so, diplomats from both countries are letting it be known that they do not have inexhaustible patience for the North's bellicose theatrics. A truly dangerous movesuch as reprocessing plutonium from spent fuel rods at the Yongbyon plant, engaging U.S. or South Korean troops or testing a ballistic missilecould change China's thinking. "If the issue is handed to the Security Council, it will be harder to protect Pyongyang," and China would probably go along with international sanctions, says Chinese academic Zhu Feng, director of the international-security program at Beijing University. Should Kim test a nuke or fire a weapon at U.S. or South Korean troops, Zhu says, China "would have to consider breaking up its traditional friendship with Pyongyang ... [by] limiting aid or reducing trade."
Meanwhile, Lee, the cancer victim and refugee, is caught in the middle of global events she barely understands. Sanctions or no sanctions, "Kim Jong Il will be fine, and the high officials will be fine," she says. "It is the average people who will starve to death. My sons, nephews and brothers," she adds, "are still there."