NORTH Korea's past effort to build Asia's highest building failed - the 110-storey hotel has never been completed. It has, however, succeeded in building the tallest statues in Asia of living leaders. This much is known about that country. The general dearth of anecdotal evidence about North Korea is part and parcel of its remoteness and isolation from the world. Most of the few tourists who go to North Korea are pro-Pyongyang Korean residents who are usually too busy singing the regime'spraises to offer any fresh perspectives. The occasional conducted tours for non-Koreans sometimes produce insights. Some of those visitors recently reported that residents of Pyongyang were facing the depth of the Korean winter without either heating or hot water. Air raid drills are being used as an excuse to turn out the lights in the North Korean capital for the entire night. Conducted tours are usually devoid of any spontaneous North Korean behaviour. Unlike their Chinese or Vietnamese counterparts, North Korean tour guides seldom, if ever, depart from the party line. They devoutly retail the Gospels according to the Great and Wise Leader, President-for-life Kim Il-Sung, and the Dearly Beloved and (this adjective has been recently added) Sagacious Leader, commander-in-chief and First Son, Kim Jong-il. Once a leading Italian journalist wittily turned this humourless habit to his advantage. His dispatch from North Korea began ''I have just been on a visit to paradise'', and consisted of an outwardly earnest recounting of the party line. For outsiders, the account came across as brilliant satire. For the North Koreans, here was a foreigner who reported the truth. The journalist in question was rewarded with return visas. North Korea is surely unique among the countries of the world for using one roundabout way to inform itself about itself. Advertisements are placed in foreign newspapers, usually those in desperate need of advertising revenue, setting out the Gospel according to the two Kims. Then the advertisements are reported back to readers in North Korea as if they were objective reports by foreign reporters. So, early last December, North Korean newspaper readers were able to learn that, according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the Zimbabwe Times had reported that ''in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea today, all the people are closely united around Comrade Kim Jong-il, Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army. ''(North) Korea is vigorously advancing along the road of socialism chosen by itself, without the slightest vacillation on the basis of single-hearted unity, which firmly guarantees socialism, stressed the Zimbabwe Times.'' By a strange coincidence, North Koreans also learned from the same KCNA news item that the reporter for the Zaire newspaper, La Nation (sic) had exactly the same idea, as he told Zaireans that ''the young people in North Korea today are united in one mind around Comrade Kim Jong-il''. Of course, what had happened was that the Zaire newspaper received exactly the same advertisement as the Zimbabwe one. It is interesting, and maybe significant, that the Dear Leader's drum-beaters felt his prestige needed to be bolstered in this roundabout way. Stress on ''single-hearted unity'' as being the essence of the Korean revolutionary tradition is a constant in the North Korean media. The sustained barrage clearly aims to prove that any thought of collective leadership is a heresy. The party paper, Nodong Sinmun, said in an editorial on December 4: ''Today the tradition of single-hearted unity established in the years of the anti-Japanese struggle has been fully inherited and developed in our country, in holding the Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong-il in high esteem. ''The Korean people fully entrust all their destiny to the Dear Leader, regarding him as their mental support. They remain loyal and devoted to his idea and leadership, singing the song 'No Motherland Without You' ''. But are they? The sheer monotony and intensity of the propaganda barrage exalting the two Kims inevitably provoke the question: are the North Koreans taken in by it all? The only evidence that some individual thinking may have survived the totalitarian onslaught comes in a story which is, however, nearly 30 years old. In the 60s, one Scandinavian journalist, invited for a stay by a foreign diplomat, decided to explore the Potemkin Village-like atmosphere of Pyongyang with early morning jogs through the usually empty streets. One morning he was surprised to see another jogger, a Korean, coming towards him. His fellow-runner appeared passive and did not return a greeting as they approached each other. There was not even a smile as they passed by. But as they did, the journalist was shocked to hear the clear English words come floating back to him: ''Don't believe a word they say.'' That single sign of scepticism has been more than offset over the years by the fellow-travelling foreigners who have seemed to believe every word of North Korean propaganda. But even they have had their doubts. The leftist writer Jon Halliday tells of one Peruvian poet who was granted several interviews with Kim Il-Sung and whose adulatory book about North Korea was widely circulated by Pyongyang in the 70s. Halliday asked him why he did it. ''They fought the North Americans. They have done incredible things in the economy. It's the only Third World country where everyone has good health, good education, and good housing,'' was the reply. ''But what do you really think about it, as a poet?'' Halliday persisted. ''It is the saddest, most miserable country I've ever seen in my life,'' was the answer. ''As a poet, it strikes bleakness into my heart.'' That verdict was rendered before North Korean soldiers, allegedly on Kim Jong-il's orders, axed two American servicemen to death in the demilitarised zone (DMZ); before half the South Korean cabinet was blown up in Rangoon in an attempt, by North Korean spies, to additionally assassinate President Chun Doo Hwan; and before 115 people were killed when a South Korean airliner was blown up by two North Korean agents in November 1987. Regarding the last event, the one agent to survive, Kim Hyun Hui, illustrates the ''bleakness'' as she explains why she obediently planted the bomb in the KAL jet: ''I had thought both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il were gods, and blindly took orders from the Korean Workers Party.'' Because she failed to take the cyanide capsule as obediently as her fellow-bomber, and has recently written her memoirs about life under the two Kims, she concludes that her family members back home are now in a concentration camp. MISS Kim's recently published memoirs, like most stories about the North, are a chilling reminder of the brutally pervasive power of the totalitarian state fuelled by an obsessive dynastic personality cult. But one other anecdote strongly suggests that such power may be coming to an end. One vast difference between Korea today and pre-unification Germany is the lack of all contact between the two halves of the divided country. The Korean DMZ is a much more effective barrier than the Berlin Wall ever was. North Koreans seeking to flee (as East Germans often did) would have to pass through 80 per cent of the North Korean army before they reached the DMZ. No South Korean television or radio broadcasts reach the North, and no North Korean broadcasts reach the South. Given the mutual ignorance, many Northerners believe the Kim Dynasty line that their South fellow-countrymen are groaning under the heel of the American imperialists. However, a few Koreans, with foreign (mainly American) passports, do manage to visit both Koreas. One Korean-American who does this is related to a divided family. In the North, the family includes one senior official. On the Korean-American's most recent visit, the official earnestly gave him a small well-wrapped package. ''Please give this to my mother in the South. I realise how much they are suffering, how difficult things are there, and thought they would appreciate this gift.'' On his next visit to the South, the Korean-American delivered the package as requested. Imagine his, and the family's, surprise to discover that the North Korean official had sent a packet of brown sugar, a commodity which is readily available in the South. Too much should not be read into one small incident. Nevertheless, the implications of this small tale are devastating. Here is a high-ranking North Korean official who really believes the party line about the South. What happens when and if North Korea finally opens up and North Koreans learn, at last, that the Gospel according to the two Kims is a gigantic lie? That the''downtrodden'' South, in fact, enjoys everything that Northerners lack? The brown sugar gift is only one illustration of that lie. North Koreans have not yet been told that men landed on the moon in 1969; and a whole array of other facts which they may one day discover. North Koreans have been told that the Great Inventor Kim Il-Sung is personally responsible for most 20th Century advances. The absence of contact and communication between North and South have helped the Kim Dynasty survive so long, notwithstanding a dismal economic performance in the last decade, and a regime which needs to keep at least 100,000 political prisoners in its gulag. But any substantial degree of North-South contact, let alone union, would quickly de-legitimise the world's only communist family dictatorship. If North Korea sustains its isolation, it is finished. If it opens up, the Kim Dynasty cannot survive. The enormity of the current crisis is that, as North Korea moves to acquire nuclear weapons, ''paradise'' is close to collapse.