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Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008

N. Korea, viewed from the inside

Journalist Jiro Ishimaru publishes reports and photos directly from the communist state

Staff writer

North Koreans are aware of Kim Jong Il's reported illness and anticipating an end to his dictatorship, said a Japanese journalist who recently returned from the China-North Korea border.

News photo
Road to ruin: An evidently malnourished girl sits by the side of the road in Haeju, North Korea, in August in this video image provided by Asia Press. COURTESY OF SHIM WICHON

Jiro Ishimaru, founder and editor of Rimjin-gang, a magazine featuring reports and photography by North Koreans in North Korea, said in an interview with The Japan Times that the North's citizens noted Kim's absence at a military parade Sept. 9 to mark the 60th anniversary of the nation's founding.

Western media have explained Kim's absence as a result of a stroke he suffered in August.

"This is going to make North Koreans seriously start thinking about what's going to happen next," Ishimaru quoted one of two workers who crossed the Yalu River border to Dandong, China, to earn foreign currency.

Another said: "Among our close friends, we wish for Kim to go ahead and die."

Ishimaru, who returned to Tokyo with photos and raw video footage of the situation inside the secretive state, said the two workers arrived in China a few days before the 60th anniversary celebrations.

That Dandong encounter — also recorded on video without showing the men's faces and broadcast Sept. 21 on NTV's "The Sunday" — took place Sept. 10, a day after the anniversary.

By the time Ishimaru talked to them, they already knew about Kim's absence through Chinese media reports and the Internet.

When Ishimaru later called his contacts in northern North Korea, he discovered they also already knew of Kim's absence, he said.

"The first thing they told me on the phone, even before I opened my mouth, was about Kim not showing up at the parade. The news had already reached their ears. They asked me what foreign media were saying about Kim's health, about when he might die."

North Koreans are experiencing great hardship under the deteriorating dictatorship.

Jean-Pierre de Margerie, North Korea country director for the United Nations World Food Program, in July assessed hunger levels in North Korea as "probably at their worst since the late 1990s," when the country was emerging from a famine that led to hundreds of thousands, and by some estimates millions, of deaths. The World Food Program warns that 5 million to 6 million people are in immediate need of aid.

Ishimaru has been covering North Korea for more than 20 years and has interviewed hundreds of North Korean defectors.

He said this year's food crisis resulted only partly from external factors such as the global rise in food prices, South Korea's suspension of economic aid and China's tightening of food exports.

The worsening hunger levels were also due to internal factors such as harsh government regulations of market activities and government-organized looting of agricultural villages, he said.

News photo
Sneak peek: Jiro Ishimaru, founder and editor of Rimjin-gang, a magazine featuring reports and photography from North Korea, poses after an interview Sept. 22 in Tokyo. ALEX MARTIN PHOTO

Reflecting the grave conditions, he was alarmed to see many "kotchebi" — homeless children — in video footage taken by his staff members he arranged to have passed to him at the borders during his recent trip.

"The situation is bad, very bad," he said. "I haven't seen so many kotchebi since the '90s."

Ishimaru also pointed out that their clothes were relatively new, unlike the dirty rags that kotchebi wore during the great famine in the 1990s.

"This proves their move to kotchebi status is a recent phenomenon," he said.

Footage taken by one of his reporters at the southern North Korean port city of Haeju in August at one point captures a now-homeless family whose home, they say, was taken from them as payment for debts.

Private sale of housing in the communist state is illegal, but Ishimaru said a black market for housing has existed since the 1980s.

"Desperate people sell homes for money or food" Ishimaru said. "It seems many families are now abandoning their living quarters, unable to pay back their debts. It's not looking good."

On a separate issue, Ishimaru criticized Tokyo for enforcing strict sanctions against Pyongyang and vowing not to budge unless progress is made in resolving the long-standing abduction issue.

With the reported illness of the North Korean leader and the abrupt resignation of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in September, progress has already stalled on an August agreement by North Korea to reinvestigate the issue.

"The Japanese government, especially under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has overpoliticized the abduction issue, using it for vote-gathering," Ishimaru said.

"Economic sanctions aren't going to solve the abduction issue. Our foreign policy needs to cool its head and be rational. I hope the next time we agree to reinvestigate, our government can progress without being hindered by emotions and election politics."

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