The distress signal reached a gritty corner of Seoul last month, on the day Pyongyang announced the death of longtime despot Kim Jong-il. A North Korean was on the run from the regime, desperate to slip through the 'underground railroad' from China to Laos to Thailand. His crime: tuning in to Christian radio.
The leadership scenario of Kim Jong-un, the chubby newly anointed 'supreme commander' of North Korea - in population a roughly Mumbai-sized rogue regime with an army the size of India's - varies depending on whom you ask in its severed other half. Indications of what's going on inside the isolated and repressive North can only be gleaned in Seoul. Conversations with defectors and activists having sources inside the regime indicate that the twenty-something successor is not backed with the mass support that Pyongyang projects to the world.
Sipping coffee in the futuristic capital of Asia's fourth-largest economy, Tim Peters narrated how a network of activists plucked the defector and his family to safety. "There's no way Kim Jong-un can be anything but a figurehead," said Peters, American missionary and founder of Helping Hands Korea that last year helped 81 defectors escape. "All indications we're getting are that he will be more brutal than his father. The political and military elite will consolidate behind him to protect their privileges".
Pyongyang, capital of the impoverished communist North, is almost as near Seoul as Mumbai is to Pune. Travel between the two cities is banned. The outskirts of Seoul straddle the heavily fortified 'demilitarised zone' dividing the Koreas since they warred six decades ago. Peters arrived for the interview after answering another distress signal to rescue one of three boys aged seven, nine and fifteen who swam into China. "More kids are coming out of North Korea without parents,'' he said. "It's a sign of deteriorating conditions inside.''
The Defector's Version
The mid-fifties North Korean dared not reveal his escape plan to the family he abandoned in late 2010. He spoke to HT through an intermediary, requesting anonymity to ensure his family's safety. Asked if Kim Jong-un has the support of citizens, his answer was adamant. "No! Absolutely no support!'' he said. "North Koreans try to look obedient but I never found anyone supporting the leadership from their heart.''
The former manager of a large State-run company defected after he was jailed for a year for 'administrative' reasons. Bribing border guards, he escaped to bordering China and travelled from Laos to Thailand to 'freedom' in Seoul. He joined the family of 23,000 defectors transported six decades ahead in South Korea. They arrive from a state where the Internet is illegal to the world's most wired nation where their counterparts are healthier, taller, richer, and speak English. He encountered 'dreadful' cultural differences in the South. He secured Chinese cell phones to maintain surreptitious contact with his family. At least, in Seoul, he said, he is not alarmed by every knock on the door. He dreams of a 'free' North Korea.
China's best friend
"Foolish politicians around the world, including in South Korea, should not expect any changes from us", warned Pyongyang in a post-succession statement. However, one can spend a day in Seoul without meeting somebody who cares to discuss the sabre-rattling Kim Jong-un. But ordinary residents and experts alike blame Beijing for thwarting unification of the Koreas to avoid a democracy on its border.
North Korea and Pakistan are China's closest allies, acting as Beijing's proxies in the Northeast and South Asia. Chinese strategists insist that Beijing's influence to subdue Pyongyang's belligerence is waning but in Seoul nobody buys the argument.
Beijing sided with its ally in 2010, raising suspicions of its tacit approval when North Korea torpedoed a warship and shelled an island, killing 50 South Korean civilians.
"North Korea led by Kim Jong-un will continue longer than people think, since China doesn't want any power-struggle related trouble inside North Korea,'' said Lee Byong-Chul, senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. Beijing says it appeases the Kim dynasty to avoid an influx of refugees destabilising its border region.
Nobody's sure whether Kim will launch market reform or continue his father's legacy. Washington aims, with little success so far, to get Pyongyang to abandon its covert uranium enrichment programme and reform in return for economic aid.
"I do not believe North Korea's engaged in a collective suicide mission,'' Stephen Bosworth, former US pointman on Pyongyang, was reported saying this week. "I don't think the generals and party seniors are going to give Kim Jong-un anything approaching the authority Kim Jong-il had."
Stability and reform in North Korea is significant for New Delhi, which remains concerned about missile technology transfers from the secretive regime to Pakistan in return for nuclear knowhow.
Chance for change
Sanghun Kim was 14 at the end of World War II when he fled North Korea, where he's now blacklisted. The veteran activist collects evidence of prison abuse in the regime and has his ear to the ground. "I don't exclude the possibility of an uprising,'' he said repeatedly, hunched in an underground subway café in Seoul.
Though China's an ally, its influence as the top trade partner helps North Koreans become aware of the good life. North Korean businessmen are streaming into China, where they surf the Internet and freely make international phone calls. Those isolated inside are watching South Korean cinema and reading anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent from Seoul in balloons.
"They can't stop people from being more aware,'' Sanghun said. "I know changes are taking place inside North Korea, but to what extent, none can verify."