SEOUL -- Before his defection 11 months ago, Kim, a 35-year-old with round-rimmed glasses and a self-assured air, enjoyed the relatively blessed life of the North Korean elite. The son of a ranking military officer in a nation where millions died of starvation during the 1990s, Kim owned a television, a refrigerator and larders brimming with savory white rice.
His life improved even more after July 2002, when the North Korean government decreed a landmark series of free-market reforms. As a result of those initiatives, Kim had increasing contact with the world outside North Korea, where information is strictly controlled. When trade with neighboring China began to boom, he took advantage of his high position in a state trading company to start a private business selling antiques to Chinese and South Korean buyers.
"From my Chinese and South Korean clients, I heard about just how rich South Korea really was," said Kim, who in January joined the growing ranks of North Korean defectors when he sought asylum inside South Korea's consulate in Beijing, later resettling in Seoul. He asked that only his last name be used to protect his family, still in North Korea.
"I began to understand that I was living in a poor country, and that China and South Korea had riches beyond our imagination," he said. "Once I could see through the lie that we were as well-off as any nation, I knew I could not live in North Korea anymore."
Kim's defection illustrates what many analysts are calling one of the biggest challenges for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il since he inherited power from his father, Kim Il Sung, a decade ago. As North Korea enters the 30th month of its experiment with free-market reforms -- including deregulating prices and increasing foreign trade -- diplomats, analysts, intelligence sources and recent defectors say that the once airtight lid on information in what is known as the Hermit Kingdom is gradually loosening.
Most North Koreans remain subject to one of the world's most thorough propaganda machines. But Asian intelligence sources estimate that as many as 20,000 North Koreans -- particularly those trading in the newly thriving border area with China -- now have access to Chinese cellular phones, from which they can make undetected international calls in large areas of northern North Korea. The phones are especially popular with communication brokers, people who make money by putting South Koreans and resettled defectors in contact with their family members in North Korea.
At the same time, within North Korea, contact with outsiders is growing. The European Union Chamber of Commerce opened a branch in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in January. At the new Kaesong Industrial Park near the border with South Korea, and at Mount Kumgang, a tourist resort in the North, South Korean firms are directly employing and paying North Korean workers for the first time.
"North Korean people and the elite bureaucrats all want more reform," said Sohn Kwang Joo, managing editor of the North Korea Daily, a Seoul-based Web site. "But the faster the doors open, the more vulnerable becomes Kim Jong Il's tight grip of the nation. Kim Jong Il will therefore try to control and limit the opening. But as more people cross in and out of the border, there are more mobile phones, and more flows of information, the North Korean people will begin to realize the truth about Kim Jong Il."
Kim Jong Il governs by means of an autocratic system in which North Koreans are taught to revere him as divine. While his government treats uncensored information as dangerous, U.S. and Asian intelligence sources say that increased communication has not led to any major weakening of his power.
U.S. and Asian officials also largely dismiss recent reports in the South Korean and Japanese press -- including allegations of assassination plots, the rise of anti-Kim propaganda and massive defections by the military elite -- as mostly speculation and wishful thinking.
"Some have said that North Korea will collapse," South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun said last week during a three-nation visit to Europe. "But I believe there is almost no such possibility."
One Asian intelligence source added, "The suggestion that there are already cracks in Kim Jong Il's grip on power is simply not true, at least not yet."
Rather, some analysts say, the danger for Kim lies ahead -- if his government cannot find ways to evolve in the same manner as China and Vietnam as they shifted away from communism.
There are signs that Kim is trying to update his image. A diplomat close to the government confirmed recent reports that portraits of Kim -- ubiquitous in North Korea and typically hung alongside those of his storied father -- had been taken down in several places frequented by foreigners. Last year, North Korean officials ordered the removal of Kim's portrait from dozens of Korean-language schools in Japan that his government founded and continues to help fund.
Domestically, however, the economic transition is imposing strains. North Koreans are now expected to buy much of their own food at open markets rather than receiving it from the state, but inflation has risen far more than increases in official wages, according to a report by the U.N. World Food Program. The study, released last month, found that the price of a liter of vegetable oil, for instance, increased threefold from September 2003 to September 2004 to about $1.50 -- an amount roughly equal to a week's salary for many North Korean workers.
"The reforms are creating new groups of vulnerable individuals," said Anthony Branbury, the program's Asia director. "They are hurting many of the people who simply don't have the money to buy food privately while benefiting a minority who were already in the elite and weren't at risk in the past, anyway. Whether the long-term effect of the changes will be a net benefit for North Korea is impossible to tell, but right now, life is much harder for many North Koreans."
To keep control, Kim is moving harshly against perceived threats to his authority, according to analysts. Diplomats who have recently traveled to Pyongyang say the government has added more checkpoints and restrictions on foreign aid groups and overseas missions. More important, South Korean and Japanese government officials say Kim is believed to have recently removed Chang Song Taek, his powerful brother-in-law and a top-ranking member of North Korea's Workers' Party, from his post. Officials say they believe Kim acted against Chang because his private business dealings had grown too lucrative -- so lucrative, sources say, that Chang may have begun to establish his own group of high-ranking, loyal followers.
"But in North Korea, there is only one person to be loyal to, and that is Kim Jong Il," said a Japanese government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It seems that is the message that Kim was sending with Chang."
Intelligence officials say both North Korea and China have apparently tightened security at their border. But North Korea is still struggling to stem the tide of outward-bound refugees. More than 400 defectors, the largest number to arrive in South Korea in one month, landed here in July via Vietnam. South Korean missionaries who help spirit out the refugees say many were spurred on by foreign broadcasts they heard on new imported radios smuggled in from China. Unlike those approved for sale in North Korea, the Chinese radios can pick up transmissions from abroad, abounding in tales of Seoul's glittering skyscrapers and streets jammed with late-model cars.
"Kim Jong Il will not make it easy," said Kim, the defector who sought refuge in South Korea this year. "But the more people realize the extent of the lies being told to us in North Korea, the more people will be risking their lives to leave."
Special correspondents Joohee Cho in Seoul and Sachiko Sakamaki in Tokyo contributed to this report.