As icy winter clutched the land, from its steep mountains to Pyongyang’s grand monuments, they wept and trembled in their masses: 24 million people united in a display of grief.
“For fifteen days after Kim Jong-il died we had to mourn, every day. We had to go to the big portrait in the town and to the statues,” recalled Song Miha, a birdlike woman in her early 40s.
“Who knows what people thought? I was neither sad nor happy. My life is so hard, I just wondered: Where will things go?” she said.
Almost a year after the Dear Leader’s death, his country’s destiny remains of intense concern not only for Song and compatriots, interviewed across the border in China, but for the world’s great powers.
Felled by a heart attack caused by overwork, according to state media, Kim left a desperately impoverished people to the rule of a son who has yet to reach 30, and a military, party and family elite.
North Korea’s launch of another rocket this month was both a tribute to its late leader and one of its periodic reminders to the outside world: The nuclear-armed regime may be mocked and reviled, but not ignored.
Twelve months after Kim’s death, there are faint hints of change. The government admitted that the previous rocket launch failed — an unprecedented step. Kim Jong-un has unveiled an elegantly clad wife. Construction work is under way in the capital, which boasts a new dolphinarium and a theme park.
“I have seen on television that life in Pyongyang is better, but that’s just Pyongyang. It’s not like that in the countryside,” said Won Ok-geum, another of the five North Koreans who the Guardian met in a safe house in Yanji, close to the Tumen River border.
Like most of those who cross the frontier, they had been driven by hunger, not political dissent. One had risked her life to dash over the border. Others had overstayed hard-won visas, saying they would pay their way out of trouble when they returned.
There are tens or hundreds of thousands of North Koreans in China; many in Yanji, where the large ethnic Korean population allows them to blend in and find work.
However, they risk repatriation and subsequent consignment to a labour camp. Chinese authorities sometimes conduct random checks on vehicles near the border and offer rewards to informers.
“I’m always tense,” Song said.
Like all of those interviewed, she did not use her real name. Because the North inflicts collective punishment — which helps to explain why its prison camps bulge with about 200,000 inmates — interviewees feared the repercussions for their families as well as themselves.
North Korea decries attacks on its human rights abuses as the inventions of jealous foreign aggressors. Even some of those who have left believe the country is beset by hostility.
However, their testimony shows how the regime’s credibility is being stretched ever thinner internally. It had promised that this year would be a turning point.
“Our country was supposed to become strong and people’s lives were supposed to improve, but even that didn’t happen. It was very disappointing. Actually, it’s been harder,” Song said.
For years the North has been not so much a developing country as an undeveloping one — unraveling before the eyes of its people. The disintegration of the distribution system has left them scrabbling for survival in fields and markets.