North Korea Faces Famine, Defector Says

SEOUL -- A desperate food shortage has pushed many North Koreans to the brink of starvation, fueling refugee flight to China and the beginnings of popular protests, according to a defector from North Korea. In a tearful account of the grim life in the world's most secretive, isolated Communist nation, Yo Man Chol, a 48-year-old former security force captain, said people are dying in the fields and that support for Kim Il Sung, the authoritarian regime's leader, is rapidly declining. The Kim regime, whose suspected development of nuclear weapons has attracted international concern, had placed the nation on a war alert but recently stopped full-scale military exercises, he said. On Monday, South Korean President Kim Young Sam ordered his nation's 650,000 troops on a 24-hour alert after unusual military moves by North Korea, including amassing more soldiers and weapons at the tense inter-Korean border than are allowed by international agreements. Yo, flanked at a packed news conference by his wife and three children, said so many North Koreans are near starvation that the normally repressive government has begun issuing internal travel permits to people to search for food. Using such a permit, Yo made his way to the Chinese border and headed for the city of Shenyang after crossing the frozen Yalu River under cover of darkness with his family six weeks ago. He then defected to the South Korean Consulate in Hong Kong. "We decided it was better to die trying to escape the north than of starvation," said Yo, who worked as a driver in the port city of Hamhung at the time. Yo said he defected because he had been blacklisted in 1989 for taking a bribe. His daughter had been fired from her job because of this, and he feared his children would have no future. Yo said "uprisings must be imminent" over the food crisis. Most people have been forced to subsist on nothing more than pickled vegetables or one bowl of corn porridge a day since last August, when the strapped government sharply reduced food supplies. He said several people in his apartment building had died of starvation and that people had demanded that military food supplies be released to the public, although such demands are treated harshly. Kim's personality cult is on the wane, Yo said. "Patriotism is a thing of the past," he said. "You can't riot in public, but people do it quietly. People talk at home."