Most Americans know in the abstract that the North Korean regime is a nasty one. It regularly threatens Japan, South Korea and even the United States and Australia with bellicose rhetoric so bizarre that it sounds like nuclear-powered schoolyard taunts. It subjects its people to such deprivations that North Koreans are, on average, actually shorter than their cousins in South Korea. North Korea spends most of its money, obtained by trade in weapons, drugs and sex slaves as well as aid from Beijing and to a much lesser extent South Korea, on its nuclear weapons, its missiles and its army while its people starve. It plays its bellicosity as a card to obtain international food aid. North Korea is, as German Dr. Norbert Vollertsen describes it, a mad place.

Initially, Vollertsen observed the rule common to aid workers in repressive countries like North Korea: keep quiet about what you see. But he gradually found it harder and harder to obey. When he drove into small towns, he was shocked to see surrounding hills dotted with fresh graves. Clinical depression was rampant, fueled by the mind-numbing rigidities and hopelessness of life in one of the world’s last Stalinist states. Alcoholism also was common. Vollertsen found that, as in the former Soviet Union, cheap booze was almost always available to North Koreans, even when everything else had run out. “Anxiety is everywhere,” he wrote in his diary. “Where does this inhuman fear in people’s eyes come from?”

As a trained pediatrician, Vollertsen was particularly moved by the fate of North Korea’s children. Outside Pyongyang, malnutrition is widespread and often severe. On trips to Nampo, a port city a short drive southwest of Pyongyang, he regularly spotted gangs of children working on a 10-lane highway, the kind of grandiose trophy project North Korea loves to build. There were thousands of kids, some as young as eight, breaking rocks with hammers and hauling them in wheel- barrows or makeshift backpacks.

Vollertsen was stunned by what he considered the wasteful obsession with the 55th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party, which was held last October. On walks around Pyongyang, he would find parks and parking lots filled with children rehearsing for the celebration. The relentless training continued even during stretches of scorching heat and freezing cold—seemingly at all hours of day and night. “The children looked exhausted and fed up. There was very rigid discipline,” he wrote.

A similar extravaganza was later organized for the benefit of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who came to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. But while Kim was pulling out the stops for his American guest, Vollertsen was visiting a children’s hospital in Pyongsong, a town north of the capital. He walked into a room filled with young children with hollow eyes and skin stretched tight across their faces. To the German doctor, their faces and blue-and-white striped pajamas were horrifyingly familiar: “They looked like the children in Auschwitz and Dachau,” says Vollertsen.

We have all heard of North Korea’s labor camps, its executing of entire families, and the rest. The regime’s horrors almost begin to drip by like so many abstractions.

To the family of Megumi Yokota, North Korea’s evil is anything but abstract. Thirteen-year-old Yokota was walking along a beach one evening in 1977, on her way home from school. She never got there. Her parents and twin brother’s lives were never the same afterward, as they tried to piece together what might have happened to their little girl.

Over the years, they discovered evidence that, as incredible it sounded, she had been snatched off the beach by North Korean agents. During the 1970s and 80s, the North Korean government silently kidnapped at least 13 Japanese citizens and hundreds of South Koreans, spirited them away to conclaves around North Korea and forced these abductees, some of whom were as young as 10 years old, to train North Korean infiltrators in language and customs. The apparent plan was to create a small army of agents who could slip into South Korea and Japan, blend in, and wait. They might have become agitators of one sort or another, or they might have become terrorists. They might be present in Japan and South Korea to this day.

The Japanese and South Korean abductees themselves remained in North Korea, where they intermarried, had children, and have grown old. Thanks to pressure started by Megumi Yokota’s family, there have been a few reunions and five of them have been released. These meetings have all been part of the backdrop of the ongoing nuclear and missile crisis with North Korea over the years. Pyongyang seems to dangle these gatherings of families it intentionally splintered as a way of moderating its mad image, but they mostly leave the families of the abducted with more questions than answers.

This past week, under international glare for fueling up what may be an ICBM and in order to score a propaganda coup while President Bush met with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Pyongyang allowed one of the children it snatched all those years ago to meet his mother and sister at a carefully staged meeting at a North Korean resort. Kim Young Nam was taken from South Korea when he was 17 in 1978, raised and made a cultural infiltrator instructor in North Korea, met and married Megumi Yokota, and had children with her. (How voluntary these marriages between abductees were is not clear.) Written accounts of Mr. Kim’s meeting with his family really don’t do it justice. I’m told by Hot Air’s correspondent in Japan that on video the meeting was strange for several reasons. First, Kim’s face may as well have been a death mask for all the emotion he showed upon meeting his 82-year-old wheelchair bound mother and his sister, both of whom he hasn’t seen in 28 years. While they cried and sobbed, he merely kept repeating variations of “This is a happy day. Why are you crying?” Though the meeting was surrounded by press cameras, the North Koreans only allowed the footage from two of those cameras released. Were the rest props intended to make it look like North Korea has an actual free and vibrant press? With Kim were his children including a young son by Kim’s current wife. The boy sported a new suit and a gold watch. But his clothes didn’t fit and it was clear that the watch wasn’t something he would wear–it was all too big for him, as though the regime had hastily prepped the family for the meeting and just robed them with whatever was at hand. But the oddest thing may have been Kim’s and his daughter’s stories about Megumi Yokota, who was Kim’s wife and the mother of his oldest daughter.

The North Korean government claims that Yokota committed suicide in 1994. That would have been just a few years before the Japanese government first started to apply pressure on Pyongyang for its serial theft of Japanese citizens, and Tokyo had only started to apply that pressure once the Yokota case could no longer be denied and others had come to light. It was convenient for North Korea, then still denying any abductions, to simply admit it but then follow up with Yokota’s death as a way of keeping the purpose of the abductions concealed. When they did admit to have taken her, the North Koreans at first claimed that Yokota had died in 1993, but changed that to 1994, and sent her family an urn said to contain her ashes. That was in 2004. The contents were tested for DNA (something the North apparently did not expect), and were found to contain ashes, but not those of Megumi Yokota. The government that had taken her was therefore continuing to lie about her, even trying to pass off someone else’s ashes as hers. So she may yet be alive, and the North may have claimed that she was dead back in 1994 to avoid allowing her to meet her family and therefore risk exposing its secret infiltration training program–a program the New York Times failed to uncover at any point in its utility.

Mr. Kim sticks to the story of Yokota’s suicide, but wants nothing to do with Yokota’s Japanese family at all, all of which makes sense given that his family reunion took place in full view and control of the North Korean government. He even insists that he was not abducted (though his abductor, who has defected, insists otherwise). Yokota’s 18-year-old daughter by Kim once claimed that she remembered her mother taking her on trips to the beach and the like, but during this meeting claimed not to remember her mother at all. It seems clear that North Korea does not want either Kim or his daughter to stray into conversations about Megumi at all, again raising the possibility that Pyongyang lied in 1994 and that she may yet live.

What to do with a regime like that one in North Korea? It is on the record now for having abducted hundreds of children from neighboring sovereign countries and forcing those children to work, maybe even forcing them to marry and have children. It is on the record lying about all of this, denying it as long as it could and then in a morbid twist using family reunions involving those it snatched to score propaganda points against its enemies. The depth of depravity on exhibit in all of this is difficult to guage.

In no way is North Korea a normal country, and in no way can serious negotiations over any of its many tricks and crimes go usefully far. North Korea under Kim Jong Il is, as the president once described it, worthy of its membership in the axis of evil.

Tags: New York