TOKYO -- North Korea is not seated at this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Seattle. But it is a frightening presence to many who are there.
The "Hermit Kingdom," as some call it, is heavily armed and experimenting with ballistic missiles and nuclear technology. It is vexed by a troublesome succession from 81-year-old dictator Kim Il Sung to his son, Kim Jong Il.
Equally dangerous, the sealed outpost of unyielding Communist principle is mired in depression. Recent visitors and refugees report that food, fuel, medical care and clothing are all in desperately short supply.
The food shortage is said to be so serious that the government urges people to eat only two meals a day. A single egg costs a full day's wages. A month's pay buys a dog, said to be one of the few accessible sources of meat.
Small wonder, perhaps, that the United States treads warily in trying to compel North Korea to allow inspections of its nuclear development. It is a desperate place, and in many ways getting worse.
While the economies of the surrounding Asian countries that are sending representatives to Seattle are showing some of the world's most robust expansion rates, estimates of North Korea's economic decline range from 7 percent to 30 percent.
But statistics are particularly unsuitable for measuring conditions in North Korea. Precise facts are hidden by mountains, soldiers and censors. Communication with the rest of the world is sharply restricted. Incessant propaganda undermines any internal incentive to produce accurate data. Information about the country is largely anecdotal, coming from defectors, from North Koreans now living in Japan and from closely supervised tours by journalists.
The picture they paint is not of an incremental decline in economic activity, but rather of a bleak situation inexorably deteriorating. The end of the barter-oriented Soviet universe eliminated critical markets for North Korea's shoddy exports and eliminated sources for raw materials, especially petroleum.
Electricity is available only early in the morning and briefly in the evening. Running water is intermittent. Simple things like soap, fabric and thread are hard to obtain. A woman now living in Japan who was last able to visit an extended family in North Korea three years ago found that her relatives had not bathed in years.
The woman, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals against her family, said a meal at her son's home in a country village was comprised of a watery gray porridge made from shaft of rice and oil that was pressed from corn. Her son was extremely poor, the woman said. She found the food prepared in his home inedible, but her daughter-in-law said the family would have been happy if only they could have eaten enough to be full. In a trip across North Korea last year, Bradley Martin, a Tokyo-based writer and former correspondent for The Sun, said, "Evidence of poverty and economic stagnation was abundant." Oxen typically are used to plow the fields, and large numbers of people on the streets at midday seemed to confirm reports of widespread idling of factories and workers because of material and fuel shortages.
Compounding North Korea's growing structural problems are the same weather conditions that have created havoc this year throughout Northeast Asia, including parts of China, South Korea and Japan.
Officially, the North Korean government radio station has announced a "bumper crop," according to translations of broadcasts by an organization connected to the South Korean government. A Seoul-based group, the Korea Rural Economy Institute, reckons that North Korean rice, bean and corn production are all down by more than 30 percent -- approximately the same decline being reported by neighboring countries. The institute concludes that North Korean production may now be able to meet only half the national demand.
Food aid requested
Lee Young Hwa, a Kansai University professor, spent much of 1991 in North Korea and has continuing contact with visitors and residents. He said this year the North Korean government was forced to make emergency requests for rice and other cereal grains such as barley and millet. The requests were refused by South Korea and now are being considered by China.
For many families, Mr. Lee said, a good meal today is brown rice, a pickled form of cabbage and weak soup with a few vegetable leaves on top. Propane and gas are in short supply, making it difficult to transport or cook the food.
Traditionally, North Koreans were provided with meat at least twice a year, on the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il. But according to the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo, interviews with refugees suggest that several years ago those who did receive meat began receiving broth, and then a common meat soup -- without the meat.
Pigs are given to farmers to raise for the political elite. Dogs, according to the woman who visited her son, are raised for meat. On one visit, she said she had heard rumors of cannibalism.
Food-related crimes have become a growing problem.
Even soldiers have reportedly been involved in robberies of food warehouses and food trucks.
About 80 percent of the food is sold through the black market, Mr. Lee said. For these purchases, the Japanese yen has become a popular currency. Yen were once sent in abundance by relatives in Japan, but cash in envelopes has lately become susceptible to theft. Tighter travel restrictions on outsiders have curtailed personal delivery.
Lacking external support, the most fortunate North Koreans are said to be those with family spread throughout the country who can directly trade whatever is being produced in their region. Officially, citizens are provided with two sets of clothing a year, both essentially work uniforms, said a South Korean Embassy official who cited refugee reports. It may take two years' salary to buy a suit, others say. Care packages from Japan commonly contain fabric, thick underclothing and elastic belting.
Given the deprivations, it is surprising that television is available. Sets come with bands limited to receiving state-controlled stations. Short-wave radios able to receive outside news were once prized possessions, smuggled in by relatives. Now, ownership of these radios can trigger prosecution for spying, and some who brought them in a decade ago would not touch them today.
For entertainment, there are movies and television shows on the lives of the ruler and his son. Two nights a week in some villages are reserved for mandatory study sessions of government policies, with severe penalties for absence or lack of attention.