North Korea's isolated and eccentric leadership is confident it can take over South Korea by military force and may be tempted to act while its 74-year-old founder, Kim Il Sung, remains alive, according to two film-makers who escaped from North Korean captivity three months ago.
Motion picture director Shin Sang Ok and his actress wife, Choi En Hui, who defected at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, Austria, on March 13, are among the few outsiders who ever moved in the closed circle of Pyongyang's leadership and emerged to tell about it.
The couple, who once were among South Korea's best known personalities, said in an interview last month that they had escaped recently after being abducted to North Korea from Hong Kong eight years ago on the personal orders of Kim Chong Il, the 46-year-old heir apparent to North Korea's head of state and a movie buff. In a second interview this week, the film-makers expanded their comments on North Korean leaders and daily life under what they called "a total dictatorial system."
Shin and Choi, who were given top-level treatment once they agreed to make motion pictures for the north, said they had at least 10 private meetings totaling 30 to 40 hours with the powerful but mysterious younger Kim, who has rarely been outside the country since his childhood and avoids personal contact with foreigners.
Because of the film-makers' privileged view of the heir apparent and other leaders in Pyongyang, their information is "a quantum leap forward" in U.S. knowledge about the inner workings of North Korea, according to a State Department official.
The younger Kim's attitude about the rival state across the 38th Parallel is that "everything in the south belongs to him," the official said. Even though Kim is aware that technology and living standards in the north lag behind those in the south, "he still believes he will take over."
North Korean leaders did not speak to them of military plans, Shin and Choi said, but they quoted North Korean Defense Minister O Chin U as boasting at a social function in Pyongyang that his forces could move through South Korea all the way to the southern tip of Pusan "within a week" if given the order to do so by one of the two Kims who lead the country. The actress said of the defense minister, who commands a force of about 850,000 troops, "He said he would like to do it."
Such lightning success would seem unlikely in view of the presence of about 600,000 South Korean troops, 40,000 U.S. troops and a U.S. nuclear umbrella protecting South Korea. But in 1950, North Korean forces, catching South Koreans and Americans by surprise, smashed across the 38th Parallel and down to the outskirts of Pusan in six weeks, before finally being pushed back in fighting that devastated the country.
In the couple's assessment, the danger of war is greatest while the elder Kim is alive. They quoted numerous officials in the north as saying that the elder Kim, who is treated with adulation befitting a god, will live to see the unification.
Actress Choi said she was told during indoctrination sessions in the north that unification will be facilitated by an internal uprising in South Korea involving labor, progressive students and progressive intellectuals.
Despite the seeming stability of the north, the couple predicted that "when Kim Il Sung dies, Kim Chong Il probably also will fall apart." Shin said that despite hard work by the father to pave the way for his son, "definitely there will be resistance" to the dynastic inheritance when the moment comes.
Shin and Choi said they met the elder Kim for personal conversation once, on New Year's Day 1984. They said they were told to speak loudly because his hearing is poor, and that he seems to have difficulty walking.
The younger Kim has been groomed for leadership since his childhood and seems confident but temperamental, the couple said. They described him as poorly informed on some major questions involving the outside world, citing his statement to them that ordinary people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are paupers compared with North Koreans.
The average North Korean lives amid poverty and unequalled repression, according to Shin and Choi. Even ordinary items of food and clothing are strictly rationed, with meat being available to most people three times a year, although the Communist Party leadership lives well, they said.
No dissent or criticism of the state, especially of the two top leaders, is permitted. Shin, who was jailed for nearly four years for trying to escape before deciding to cooperate with his abductors, said the only words he ever heard spoken against the president in the north were in the shouts of a prisoner being led to his execution.
"Sometimes in one page of a newspaper you can read Kim Il Sung's name and flowery titles 100 times," Shin said. His wife added that "the Great Leader" is mentioned so often on radio newscasts that it is difficult to keep track of what is being said. Television and radio sets are manufactured in such a way that only state-controlled broadcasts -- and none from the outside world -- can be seen or heard, the couple said.
When the younger Kim speaks to other North Koreans, the person he addresses normally rises and stands at attention, the couple said. In an extension of this, staff members of their movie studio stood at attention to greet the bearer of a message being sent to the movie couple from the younger Kim.
When receiving a present from the heir apparent, the couple said, it is customary to perform a ceremony of thanks in front of his photograph, which is on the wall of almost every room in the country alongside that of his father. The ceremony often includes bowing to his picture and singing a song honoring Kim Chong Il, they said.
A site where the younger Kim once saw a motion picture has become a national cultural site, and a mountain where he once camped as a student has become a historical park in commemoration of the camp but, said Shin and Choi.