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Cohen: Economic Failure Plagues North Korea

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

SEOUL, April 14, 1997 – North Korea's economy is "decaying and dying," said William S. Cohen from a vantage point overlooking the deserted countryside and manned guard posts within the demilitarized zone.

Growing evidence indicates North Korea's economy has substantially deteriorated, and food shortages may cause a humanitarian crisis, Cohen told reporters traveling with him.

"It's inevitable that the North cannot sustain itself and the regime will collapse in one form or another -- hopefully, peacefully; perhaps violently," he said.

Cohen, accompanied by his wife, Janet, staff members and about 25 U.S. and South Korean news media, came to the demilitarized zone April 10. The three-mile-wide, 151-mile-long zone separates democratic Republic of Korea in the south and communist North Korea.

Traveling within the zone by bus on a sunny day, Cohen passed through Panmunjom, the "truce village" where officials signed the 1953 armistice. Today, U.S. and Republic of Korea soldiers stand guard about 20 feet from North Korean troops in the divided village still used for negotiations.

At Checkpoint 3, Cohen stood on a hilltop overlooking the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war from both sides had to choose forever between North and South. Near the south end of the bridge, a bronze and stone monument marks the spot where in 1976, North Korean solders axed to death U.S. Army Capt. Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett.

In the distance, a massive North Korean propaganda sign translates to read, "We have a better president." Another beckons, "Follow the Way of the Leading Star," referring to the death of North Korea's communist leader Kim Il Sung and assumption of power by his son Kim Jong Il.

As Cohen stood solemnly facing north from Checkpoint 3, a Washington Times reporter asked if the secretary had a message for the North Koreans.

"If they can read my lips," Cohen replied, nodding toward North Korean soldiers on guard towers about a mile away, "I would hope they would see the futility of putting up signs trying to promote propaganda of a failed and failing system."

While mass starvation threatens the North, Cohen said, "one only has to look over the border into the Republic of Korea to see what freedom can bring -- prosperity, liberty and success." He said the difference between North and South is dramatically illustrated by two villages within the demilitarized zone.

As part of the armistice agreement, each side was allowed to keep one village within the demilitarized zone. "On the north side, we saw an empty propaganda village erected by a repressive regime. On the south, a vibrant, growing democracy protected by Republic of Korea and U.S. troops."

In the North, North Korean farmers till fields near "Propaganda Village," renowned for its blaring loudspeakers broadcasting music and communist commentary throughout the night. Before dark, these farmers are removed from the area and only a handful of custodians actually live in the empty village, U.S. officials said. In the South, about 240 people live in the village of Taesong-dong. Farm families there each earn about $82,000 a year growing ginseng and other crops, a U.S. official said.

Later that day, Cohen learned South Korean troops had fired warning shots at North Korean soldiers who had crossed into the demilitarized zone earlier that morning. The incident occurred about an hour before Cohen's visit, at a point about 65 miles from Checkpoint 3. Queried about the incident, Cohen said, "This confirms this is a very tense, dangerous and unstable situation and we have to be vigilant."

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