But during his stay in China, Choi caught some South Korean soaps on satellite TV and quickly realized that the South wasn't the impoverished U.S. colony he had been brainwashed into believing it was.
''These people on the soap operas were well-fed,'' says Choi, 29. ''They would say what they wanted to say. In North Korea (news - web sites), everything began and ended with idolization of Kim Jong Il.''
Disillusioned, he risked defecting to South Korea (news - web sites) last year and now is a university student in Seoul.
''South Korea is heaven,'' says Choi, who requested that his name be changed to protect his family in the North. ''If North Koreans got a chance to see a glimpse of what the outside world is like, this could lead to the breakdown of the Kim Jong Il regime.''
Kim Jong Il knows it.
As the United States and its allies look for a diplomatic way to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, the vast economic and social gap dividing North and South Korea looms as one of the biggest obstacles to peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.
North Korean leaders go to great lengths to conceal the nation's backwardness from the rest of the world and its own people. They are wary about opening diplomatic and economic relations. The regime in the capital, Pyongyang, releases little economic information and is miserly with the health and demographic data it hands over to international aid agencies responsible for feeding its hungry people. Foreign cruise ships that dock at North Korea's Mount Kamgung resort must take all their trash with them. Even letting its people see the garbage of prosperous tourists from South Korea, Japan and the West apparently is a threat to the North.
Analysts trying to understand the ''hermit kingdom'' scour what little information is available and interview North Korean defectors who make their way South. The Bank of Korea, the South Korean central bank, has built its economic model of North Korea almost entirely from defector interviews.
Despite the paucity of information, the picture is clear. North Korea, a Stalinist state with a personality cult built around Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, is an economic basket case and a human rights nightmare.
The divide between the two Koreas is far wider than the one that separated East and West Germany at the end of the Cold War, making the prospects of Korean unification daunting economically. For instance, West Germans earned about four times more than East Germans; South Koreans, with gross domestic product per capita of more than $18,000, earn almost 20 times what North Koreans do ($1,000).
The gap reflects the ruinous economic policy of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Into the early 1970s, North Korea's economy was actually stronger than South Korea's. But the North Korean government chose a path of isolation and tight government control over commerce. South Korea opened its economy and exported its way to prosperity. South Korea is one of East Asia's ''tiger'' economies and even emerged from the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 in good shape.
South Korea ranked third in the world (behind the USA and Canada) last year in Internet usage: 53% of adults surveyed by the research company Ipsos-Reid had gone online in the previous 30 days, compared with 72% in the USA and 62% in Canada. Seoul's streets are clogged with late-model sedans. Its coffeehouses and cybercafes are filled with prosperous and well-educated young people.
North Korean defectors living in Seoul describe feelings of confusion and anger upon realizing that their government had fed them lies about the outside world, especially the South. They sound like characters from the movie The Matrix, who discover that everything they thought they knew was an illusion. Choi says, ''We realized we had been deceived. Everything was false. Everything was a lie.''
They describe lives of hunger and misery in a country that's become a pauper state under the mismanagement of the Dear and Great Leaders.
A famine from 1994 to 1997 is said to have killed at least 2 million North Koreans (the population is 22 million) and forced others to illegally trade goods from across the border in China to make a little money for food.
''The children were the first to die,'' says Lee Joo Il, 38, a North Korean who defected in 2000 and works for a human rights group in Seoul. ''Those who followed orders (not to participate in the black market) also died. Those who did things illegally lived.''
More than 100,000 North Koreans are said to live as illegal refugees in China, where they try to blend in with ethnic Korean Chinese. But the Chinese government, worried about being swamped by refugees and offending its ally in Pyongyang, tries to hunt down the refugees and send them home.
A handful make their way to South Korea, often with the discrete help of South Korean charities and church groups. South Korean intelligence agents first interrogate the defectors, making sure they aren't spies or saboteurs (the two countries are still technically at war a half-century after the Korean War). Then the South Korean government shelters them and offers job training and other social assistance for two to three months before helping them settle permanently in the South.
Inside North Korea, black market trading has become so widespread that the government hardly bothers trying to stop it anymore, defectors say. The government announced a series of free market changes in July that raised unrealistic government price controls on commodities such as rice to black market levels in an effort to end shortages.
Nearly 60% of North Korea's population is malnourished, according to the World Food Program. Although North Korea espouses an ideology of juche, or self-reliance, the country is a ward of international aid agencies, dependent on handouts for food and fuel. Pyongyang tells its people the foreign aid is international tribute to Kim Jong Il. But after nearly a decade of hunger, no one believes it, defector Lee says: ''We are not fools.''
Complaining or demanding change is not an option. More than 100,000 political prisoners languish in five prisons across the country. Some of the prisons are essentially impoverished towns ringed by fences and barbed wire. Just mentioning that life in China might be better can land a North Korean in jail. Arranging to meet South Koreans during illegal trips to China can mean hard labor or worse if they are deported back to the North. Criticizing Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung can mean execution, human rights groups and North Korea analysts say.
Kang Chul Hwan, 35, was sent to a prison at age 9 with his father, younger sister and other relatives when his grandfather (a prominent communist) fell into disfavor after some murky factional dispute in Pyongyang. Kang stayed there 10 years, watching prisoners die of malnutrition or be executed for trying to escape.
The authorities kept watch on him after his release. But he got the secret police to leave him alone with bribes of cigarettes, cash and clothing. But he was betrayed by his best friend after secretly recording and distributing tapes of South Korean radio broadcasts.
Kang fled to China to avoid arrest. He managed to escape by bribing border guards. ''There is no country in the world as corrupt as North Korea,'' he says.
Kang works as a journalist in Seoul and has written a well-regarded memoir of his days in the North Korean gulag, Aquariums of Pyongyang. The title refers to the fish Kang used to keep at home in Pyongyang and is a metaphor for the way North Korean people live -- under constant observation from the authorities.
Choi Han Chul was a true believer. As a medical student in North Korea, he and his classmates were required to spend more than half their time studying the political works of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, instead of poring over medical texts or cutting open cadavers.
The government stopped supplying food to Choi's hometown in 1996, two years after famine first hit North Korea. His parents sold their extra clothes and furniture in a desperate bid to raise money. Their prized black-and-white TV fetched enough food for three days. Nothing helped. His mother died that year, his father two years later, unable to live on meager portions of ground corn and cabbage.
Still Choi believed in the regime.
Choi began trading on the black market to scrounge out a living. Eventually, he made an illegal border crossing into China. There he lived well off a series of odd jobs: day laborer, chicken farmer, fruit picker. But he was terrified of being arrested by the Chinese or by North Korean secret agents who have infiltrated the refugee community. After seeing the South Korean soap operas, he decided to defect in late 2001.
His first attempt went awry. He was arrested trying to cross the border into Mongolia and spent a month in a Chinese prison before being turned over to North Korean authorities. North Korea distinguishes between refugees who have left for political reasons and those who just want food and work. Political refugees get much harsher treatment.
In a way, Choi lucked out. He was identified as an economic refugee and sent to a labor camp in the town of Chungjin for two months. But even there, conditions were brutal. Guards told the prisoners: ''We cannot even feed the common people. So why should we feed you traitors?''
Choi says, ''We were given food not suitable for dogs or pigs.'' Meals consisted of ground cornhusks mixed in saltwater with five or six green peas.
The prisoners worked 13 hours a day hauling timber down a mountain or making cement blocks. Two or three of the 400 prisoners died of malnutrition while Choi was there.
Despite the ordeal, he was determined to escape again. Three days after his release, he crossed back into China and made his way to Mongolia and South Korea.
''I had a taste of freedom,'' he says, sitting in a Seoul coffee shop with a big-screen TV playing behind him. ''And it is like a drug.''