To get to Sonbong, North Korea, a remote city tucked into the country's northeast, Julian Dobbs crossed a bridge from China slung across the Tumen River. On the other side, the icy blue-painted block that served as North Korea's border post blended well with the snow-swept hills.
In Sonbong to open a new bakery, Dobbs is U.S. director of the Barnabas Fund, a charity that helps persecuted Christians around the world. His two-day trip last month into North Korea provided a rare Westerner's glimpse at Kim Jong Il's totalitarian society outside Pyongyang, the capital of a starving country that prohibits even the World Food Program from working in every district.
Dobbs worked to blend in, and soon noticed that the city's residents also took care to blend into their physical and political landscape. Dobbs also heard fresh stories of crackdowns on dissenters and Christians similar to those that have trickled out of the Hermit Kingdom for years. In the last few months, U.S. diplomacy has focused increasingly on nuclear deal-making, offering aid concessions in exchange for shaky Pyongyang promises to disarm. On the eve of Washington's annual North Korean Freedom Week, April 22-29, human-rights defenders feel a new urgency to emphasize instead Kim's wrongs against his people.
At North Korea's chaotic border post, border agents examined every item in Dobbs' bag. One member of his group wanted to give the new bakery a dozen coffee mugs showing prints of Chicago's cityscape. Officials said they were too bright and confiscated them. They were "neither polite nor rude, but determined to toe the party line," Dobbs told WORLD.
In doing so, border agents sent two children whose parent was part of the group back to China: Foreigners under 20 are not allowed in North Korea. Newspapers, books, cell phones, and recording devices also are prohibited. A visitor may carry one Bible into the country, but must exit with the same one. Once across the border, a government minder for each traveler latched onto Dobbs' group of four.
From the border, the car journey to Sonbong takes another hour and a half on poor roads. Dobbs' lodging was a dilapidated two-story hotel, with threadbare carpet and chipped wall paint in his room. The hot water hardly ran, and neither did the electricity. Most of the time, Dobbs used candles and a flashlight.
At 8 a.m. every morning, the town square's loudspeakers came alive, blaring a half-hour government broadcast that lavished praise on the Korean Worker's Party and exhorted residents to pray to "our leader, Kim Jong Il." Only the red party flag and an occasional child's coat broke Sonbong's colorlessness, Dobbs said. Most people wore grey and black, and barely noticed the foreigners in their midst.
Sonbong's unreliable power supplies also meant that the bakery-a humanitarian project-could not actually bake bread. Instead, workers steam 3,000 loaves a day with a kitchen furnace, producing pale, doughy balls that tend to spoil faster. The government does not allow sales, either: It collects the bread and distributes it around Sonbong.
Dobbs attended the March 21 ribbon-cutting ceremony at the bakery, which received approval to open just one day earlier. A local official attended, and Dobbs gave a 10-minute speech whose text Pyongyang pre-approved, after warning him not to ad lib. When a truck carrying some 440 pounds of Chinese flour arrived, Dobbs learned that North Koreans officials would take half as a bribe, as part of the bakery's negotiated deal.
Two Chinese women in their 50s will oversee the bakery's staff of about 10, sharing one spartan room with two single beds and a fire pit they use for heat and cooking. "These women live amongst poverty, isolation, and oppression while they manage the bakery in North Korea," Dobbs said. "These are very courageous and very lonely people."
On his pre-approved itinerary, Dobbs could visit the nearby coast, the bakery, the hotel, and a local restaurant for meals. Minders denied an impromptu drop-in to a kindergarten. He also had to ask permission to snap photos, with the admonition, "Photograph is privilege."
Dobbs and a companion traveled by car with two minders, an older one in his 50s and a jumpy, 40ish man who brooked no deviations. "He was agitated when we would walk even 50 feet out of an area where we should have been," Dobbs said. One minder reproached a group member for laughing too loudly, demanding "silence and a more somber manner."
On both sides of the border, Dobbs heard horror stories from underground Christians about recent North Korean persecution. Executions and torture may occur in large part in North Korea's prison camp-the gulag holds an estimated 200,000 political prisoners-but they also happen in public. Dobbs gleaned one estimate that the regime kills 300 people a year for their faith. Other well-connected activists report arrests of Christians were higher last year than in 2005, with perhaps 50,000 believers languishing in prison.
Some examples of persecution that Dobbs learned about:
- In one prison, a warden hung a Christian man upside down and ordered him to deny his beliefs. Eventually the warden stabbed at him and pushed him to the ground, ordering 6,000 prisoners to trample him to death.
- Eight prisoners stayed silent when told to deny the existence of heaven, so an infuriated prison official ordered other inmates to pour molten iron over them.
- Some reports say Christian prisoners are deliberately crippled so they cannot walk; others are left naked and so starved they eat the rats scampering in their prison cells raw.
For now Washington is too absorbed with Pyongyang's nuclear disarmament, grappling with a regime that has once again gummed up the diplomatic works. In February, the six nations involved in nuclear negotiations agreed that Kim would receive heavy fuel if he shut down his nuclear reactor in Yongbyon by April 14. Kim has not complied, and the deadline passed with little fanfare as the United States tries to cajole him further.
Kim has used an unrelated grievance to stall matters: a frozen $25 million in a North Korean bank account in Macau. The Treasury Department has ruled that Banco Delta Asia has been laundering Pyongyang's funds, and in 2005 ordered U.S. institutions not to do business with the bank. After that, banks across the world refused to deal with North Korea, leaving Pyongyang no access to the global financial system.
For Kim that problem has not gone away. U.S. negotiators have offered a concession: allowing the unfreezing of the Macanese account. North Korea wants the funds transferred to a bank in a third country so it can again access the world financial system: It picked the Bank of China, but even U.S. entreaties have not persuaded officials fearing a Banco Delta Asia fate to allow the transfer.
The only option now, says Heritage Foundation analyst Bruce Klingner, is to tell North Korea to "come and take your money in a bag back to Pyongyang." If Kim keeps pressing his point, however, the nuclear agreement is not likely to advance. In this scenario, human-rights advocates say it is more important than ever to remember Kim's human, as well as nuclear, crimes. Dobbs says that what struck him most about North Korea was its blandness. When he asked his minder what he hoped for the future, the man predictably replied: "To serve the North Korean government."