DEFECTORS OFFER IDEAS TO UNDERMINE NORTH KOREA

James Brooke
The New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea - The Bush administration is now willing to talk to North Korea about its nuclear bomb program. And South Korea will send the North 11,800 tons of rice.

But in interviews, three recent defectors from North Korea drew on their experiences to give their own proposals for how to deal with the unpredictable government of their impoverished homeland.

The proposals included closing China's five border bridges and imposing an economic quarantine; undermining the leadership by smuggling in radios tuned to South Korean stations; and, in the words of one woman, by "bombing the North with ladies' handbags."

"My eyes were opened when, through a trader friend, I got hold of some South Korean clothing," recounted the woman, Lee Ji Young, 31. "I was surprised that they were very good clothes. I had to scissor off the labels, of course."

The Kim family's Communist dynasty - founded by Kim Il Sung and continued by his son, Kim Jong Il - has ruled North Korea for the last half century by maintaining what may be the world's tightest monopoly on information. That grip will loosen, defectors say, when North Koreans learn such basic facts as their rank as Northeast Asia's poorest nation. Per capita income in South Korea is 13 times the level in North Korea.

Military pressure, the defectors warned, will have little effect on one of the most militarized societies in the world. In the mid-1990's, during a famine, Ms. Lee recalled, "they had this slogan: `Without the candy bowls, you can still live; but without the bullets, you cannot survive."'

But behind the fire-breathing rhetoric, the North Korean Army is in shambles," she added.

Economic sanctions, if applied by China, North Korea's largest trading partner, might force Kim Jong Il to mothball his nuclear bomb projects, said the defectors, who all escaped through China. But according to a report released recently by South Korea's National Statistical Office, only 14 percent of North Korea's limping economy depended on foreign trade in 2000, compared with 69 percent in South Korea.

"When China and Russia stop giving aid, North Korea is bound to halt its nuclear weapons program," said Ma Young Ae, 39, a former counterintelligence agent who now runs a restaurant with her new South Korean husband.

An economic quarantine was also recommended by Park Soon Duck, a former Korean Workers' Party secretary at an iron mine.

All three women agreed that the slower, but more effective way to undermine North Korea's system would be to break the information monopoly that the government holds over the nation's 22 million people.

"Radios, tape cassettes, magazines - that's what I mean by cultural penetration," Ms. Ma said.