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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Asia's New Evil Empire

North Korea is the center of one of the most sophisticated surveillance stakeouts in world history. U2 spy planes photograph it daily. Electronic equipment on planes and ships and bases across Asia monitor its radio and telephone communications. Orbiting satellites can pinpoint a broken-down North Korean military truck and count the number of soldiers working on it.

But in the end, one of the world's most menacing little empires is still unknown. It might have a nuclear bomb or two; it might not. It might be crazy enough to use them; it might not.

North Korea under President Kim Jong Il is a poor, Dark Ages fortress sitting in the middle of a huge Neon Asia crackling with e-mail, bullet trains and Starbucks coffeehouses. According to the best estimates of international relief groups, 2 million to 3 million North Koreans have died of malnutrition and disease in mountains and villages not a three-hour flight from Tokyo. We couldn't get in to write about or photograph their plight for the kind of media coverage that has helped mobilize the world in response to African famines.

So, with the front door closed, we peeked in as many windows and cracks as possible. We visited South Korea more than 50 times. We roamed remote stretches of the China-North Korea border, talking to emaciated North Korean children on the dusty streets of Tumen, China. They recounted horrific stories of depravity and hunger that made them flee their homeland despite border guards who shoot to kill.

We traveled to the Russian Far East to report on North Koreans working as forced labor on Vladivostok construction sites, with their wages sent directly to the government in Pyongyang. We saw the scarred faces and broken arms of a lucky few who managed to escape from primitive wilderness lumber camps in Russia.

This is what became clearer the longer we spent looking into North Korea - talking to generals and admirals, presidents and mud-splattered soldiers, spymasters and spies, defectors, economists, analysts and even a famous fortune teller, from Beijing to Rangoon to Hong Kong: One of the cruelest regimes ever to rule a nation will carry its cloaked inhumanity into the new millennium.

The rest of Asia may be wiring up for the Digital Age, but the 20 million North Koreans run the risk of being jailed for flipping on a radio that can pick up foreign broadcasts. They don't have enough to eat. They don't have anesthesia for surgery. They are hostages - unable to leave, unable to speak their mind or to learn of the outside world under penalty of death.

And the outside world largely has chosen to look aside. Privately, U.S. officials agonize over the abuses, but they don't intend to jeopardize fragile talks on ballistic missiles and nuclear arms by raising emotionally charged human rights questions. The thin strand of dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington can bear only so much weight, they say. Washington thinks it's more important to try to disarm Kim than lecture him about humanity.

When we arrived in Asia in 1995, North Korea seemed like a nation on its knees, brought virtually to collapse by its dying economy and severe food shortages. Today, with considerable thanks to foreign aid that has included $500 million from the United States, North Korea is standing taller - still wobbly, but stronger.

But North Korea has responded to desperately needed foreign food, fuel, fertilizer and a nearly $5 billion nuclear power project (funded mainly by South Korea and Japan) by expanding its ballistic missile program. Last August, North Korea test-fired a missile over Japan. It now appears ready to test-fire a long-range missile that could reach Alaska and Hawaii.

And few believe North Korea has abandoned its efforts to build a nuclear bomb: It threatened last week to reverse its 1994 commitment to freeze its nuclear weapons program unless Washington begins to show "good faith" by lifting economic sanctions in place since 1950.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of engaging North Korea with political and economic incentives to encourage better behavior has yielded positive results and won supporters in Washington and even Beijing and Moscow. But sunshine is entering a "partly cloudy" period as it becomes clear foreign money has not purchased the hoped-for leverage with Pyongyang.

South Korea's Kim recently told us that aid equals influence - that by continuing to invest in North Korea, Seoul will be better positioned to try to shape events there. Maybe he's right. But foreign aid hasn't yet persuaded North Korea to cease its most threatening behavior.

A growing chorus of critics in Seoul and Washington says perhaps it's time to give North Korea a taste of life without the foreign gravy train, at least in the short term, regardless of whether it launches another missile. Such a shift could have serious consequences that would be impossible to predict. But policy-makers may be left with no other choice.

During the Korean War nearly half a century ago, American misreadings of North Korea and its communist allies added greatly to the death toll, which included nearly 37,000 American troops. Today, the same number of American soldiers remain in South Korea. Their lives and those of millions of Koreans on both sides of the demilitarized zone may well rest on President Bill Clinton's approach to North Korea, and whether he reads its intentions better than President Harry Truman did.

Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan have just completed a four-year assignment as Tokyo bureau chiefs for The Washington Post, to which they contributed this article.