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Life in North Korea


The head of the United Nations World Food Program in North Korea has a unique perspective on life in that secretive nation. Richard Ragan is an American and lives in Pyongyang with his family. The only American family, he says, with permission to reside in the country. This week, Richard Ragan was making the rounds in Washington to appeal for continued US food aid to North Korea. He also stopped by our studio. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.


Forty-year-old Richard Ragan lives in housing set aside for foreigners in Pyongyang and has to clear his travel most of the time, but he says he's free to roam around the capital and visit a few other cities without government minders.

Mr. RICHARD RAGAN (United Nations' World Food Program): I ride a motorcycle around the country, and I had to get a driver's license and that, of course, caused big problems because they've never given a foreigner a motorcycle license. So I went in to take the test, and the guy took one look at me and said, `OK, you pass. You don't have to take the test.' So I guess, maybe, different standards apply to foreigners when they live there.

MONTAGNE: In his travels to the World Food Program's five regional offices, he's seen some evidence that North Koreans are getting a bit more information about the outside world, some of it from North Koreans returning from studying abroad but also from DVDs and videos brought in from China.

Mr. RAGAN: Just watching the traffic that moves back and forth through that border 45 minutes or an hour gives you a good indication that stuff like that is getting in, because you see televisions, you see stereos, you see electronic equipment, you see computers.

MONTAGNE: But he says only a sliver of North Korea's population can afford to buy such goods, and he's seen other troubling trends. The famine of the mid-1990s may have passed, but inflation has run amok, he says, and that has meant severe hardship for North Koreans working for state-run factories. Ragan says this is one reason why the world is seeing more North Koreans trying to flee the country.

Mr. RAGAN: Unless certain things happen on the economic front, primarily inflation is kept under control and some sort of social safety net is put in place to take care of these people who are no longer able to support themselves, then, you know, North Korea could inch back towards the precipice, to the period that it faced in the mid-'90s.

MONTAGNE: He warns the World Food Program may have to dramatically cut back its distributions in North Korea unless it receives more aid this year. The US, which is the biggest contributor, hasn't yet made a pledge for this year but says American food aid won't be affected by the nuclear standoff with North Korea. Richard Ragan's assessment of the political situation is not likely to please many in Washington. He says Kim Jong Il's hold on power remains strong.

Mr. RAGAN: I remember several months ago there were reports that photographs of Kim Jong Il are being pulled down in public offices, and I happened to be traveling around the country when those reports came out, meeting with government officials, going into schools, going into houses, and I saw no evidence of that. My sense is that there's no lapse in his power whatsoever.

MONTAGNE: Though Richard Ragan served on President Clinton's national security team, he steers clear of talking about North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Instead, he devotes his energy to advocating humanitarian assistance, saying that's an important part of diplomatic efforts to bring the Communist nation out of isolation.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.