Search for Food Dominates North Korean Lives

North Koreans wake up each day thinking of only one thing: food. That's according to a man who left the country in 2000 and now lives in South Korea. In their search for food, the people of North Korea live with the fear of arrest and imprisonment by the government.

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And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on a hastily-arranged trip to Asia, intended to shore up support for sanctions among North Korea's neighbors. Rice is in Japan today, before traveling to South Korea, China, and Russia. So far, Pyongyang remains defiant.

We're going to hear more about North Korea from a man who's thought a lot about that country, and from a defector who just managed to get out. We'll begin there, with this report from NPR's Michael Sullivan.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Kim Me-Han(ph) is a little older than your average undergrad at Seoul's Catholic University. Sitting on the grass outside the library, he seems a little more serious, too. A neatly dressed 24-year-old, with thick black hair already flecked with gray, his biggest concern these days is midterms, just a few days away. His biggest concern back home in the North, he says, was simply survival.

Mr. KIM ME-HAN (Student, Catholic University, Seoul): (Through translator) The first thing you think about when you wake up is food -where you can get food. And if you can't find any, you spend the night hungry, knowing there's no guarantee the next day will be any better.

SULLIVAN: Kim says he began making trips to China as a teenager, after his parents died, and he was sent to an orphanage. There were 70 children there when he arrived, Kim says. Two months later, 24 of them were dead.

Mr. KIM: (Through translator) It was normal for everyone to suffer. The younger ones would usually die first, because they couldn't go out and steal from the market like the older kids could.

SULLIVAN: Kim made many trips to China while at the orphanage. He could work there for a few days as a laborer, then use what he earned to buy food and other supplies to smuggle back into North Korea. A risky business, since North Korean troops watch the border closely.

Mr. KIM: (Through translator) There are guard posts every 50 yards, but in the winter it's very cold and the guards don't like to go outside. So you wait until about three in the morning to go across. Sometimes I would get caught.

SULLIVAN: Many North Koreans make the trip back and forth across the border, he says, but few try to stay in China because of what might happen if they're caught.

Mr. KIM: (Through translator) If you stay in China and they find you, you'll be sent back to North Korea and face a long time in prison, or even death. That's the real reason why more people don't try to stay in China.

SULLIVAN: Fear of punishment by the regime, he says, colors almost everything in North Korea.

Mr. KIM: (Through translator) Intelligence service controls the society. It's spread very deeply, even in the military. They have spies everywhere. And if you say something even a little critical of the regime, you get arrested, or even killed. That's why people can't do anything about the regime. And that's the way the regime stays in power.

SULLIVAN: On one of his trips across the border, Kim Me-han's luck ran out. He got caught by North Korean security and spent the next year in jail. And when he was released he decided to leave for good, and crossed the freezing Tumen River on the dead of night, on Christmas Eve, 2000.

He got work briefly on the Chinese side as a fruit-picker before fleeing farther north to Mongolia, and eventually making his way to South Korea.

Mr. KIM: (Through translator) After I arrived at the airport, the Korean CIA investigated me for one month to make sure I wasn't a North Korean spy. Then, I spent two more months with the government resettlement agency. After that I was given about $20,000 to start a new life.

SULLIVAN: He says he's lucky to have this new life, and is working to fit in in the capitalist and competitive South, where people tend to be wary of outsiders and often look at refugees from the North with condescension and suspicion.

Two of his cousins, he says, recently made it out of the North. The last, just a few months ago. They describe a situation largely unchanged from the one he knew. He says he's looking forward to the day he can return home after Kim Jong Il's regime is gone. He doesn't expect that to happen anytime soon.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Seoul.

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