North Korea at 60: still self-reliant, still poor

Cult-like brand of communism keeps nation isolated

San Francisco Chronicle/November 13, 2005
By Jehangi S. Pocha

Pyongyang, North Korea -- To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the North Korean Workers Party's ascent to power, this capital city's giant posters of workers and soldiers, manicured parks, model hospitals and whitewashed skyscrapers were all spruced up to demonstrate that the unique brand of communism in this secretive hermit kingdom remains intact.

At the colossal May Day stadium, a cast of 100,000 acrobats, dancers, singers, soldiers, musicians and children who made giant designs using colored cards enthralled audiences with an eerily precise extravaganza called "Arirang."

As a group of sopranos sang a paean to the Korean national identity, Ryong Chol Li, one of the three government escorts accompanying four American journalists on a government-orchestrated tour late last month, seemed genuinely moved. "It shows how our people are united around the Workers Party of Korea with one mind, single-hearted," he said.

But the decay and poverty could not be entirely stage-managed away. After dusk, as the show ended, there were few lights in Pyongyang. This city, like the entire country, is chronically short of power.

Outside the capital, the legacy of the famine and natural disasters -- which collectively killed up to 3 million people during the mid- to late 1990s, according to the U.S. Institute of Peace -- was on view. Along a bumpy tar road to the Demilitarized Zone that separates North Korea from South Korea, peasants in ragged clothes combed recently reaped rice fields for leftover grains.

Government escorts forbade talking with the people scavenging in the fields or taking their photographs. North Koreans might become enraged, they said, at seeing Americans in their country, and pictures would make "the world think all North Koreans are hungry and that there is famine in the country."

"In fact, we're having a bumper crop this year," said Jiang, a Foreign Ministry escort who would not give his full name.

Elsewhere, he pointed to groups of schoolchildren and office workers from the city who had been drafted by the government to work alongside farmers in the fields for up to two weeks during the harvesting season.

"This is how we work -- as a single society, single unit, with everyone dedicated to the national cause," he said.

Such pronouncements in the face of contrary evidence reflect North Korea's cult-like self-reliance ideology called juche. Founding ruler Kim Il Sung, who took power in 1945, and his son, the current leader Kim Jong Il, have used this "Kim Il Sung-ism" to enforce adherence to the demands of the central state. Juche is so fixated on the idea of self-sufficiency that it even has its own calendar, which uses 1912, the year the elder Kim was born, as its base year.

Gerald Bourke, a public affairs officer with the U.N. World Food Program, said that despite a good harvest and increasing food aid from China and South Korea, the North could still face a shortfall of up to a million tons of food this year.

Yet Pyongyang recently informed many of the 25 or so international charities and nongovernmental organizations it had invited into the country in 1995 at the height of the famine that they will have to close shop by year's end.

"We very much feel the need to stay," said Bourke, whose agency has 40 people in the country. "We feed about 6.5 million here, (and) if WFP were not there to provide supplementary foods to children and pregnant and nursing women, it could be very serious."

Dr. Eigil Sorenson, head of the World Health Organization's office in North Korea, said that although his agency would not be "directly affected," the expulsion of other NGOs could hurt supplies of essential medicines that "would have a possibly subversive effect on the population."

The North Korean government decided to shut down the international groups because it does not like "hundreds of foreigners running around the country asking questions and monitoring government activities," said a foreign resident of Pyongyang who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal. "It fears this will 'contaminate' the country and people."

Eventually, Jiang and the other escorts acknowledged that North Korea is indeed facing hard times -- even if they were quick to translate this into a defense for Pyongyang's desire to produce nuclear energy, a quest that has put the country at odds with the United States and with its Asian neighbors concerned about the North's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

"We have no power, so nothing can run, and that's why we need the light water reactors," said Jiang, referring to North Korea's demand that it receive civilian nuclear technology in exchange for its recent pledge to surrender its military nuclear program. "Without power, it's hard to sow crops, water them, cut them, refine them or take them to market."

The United States is concerned about whether the world's last Stalinist state will ever cease threatening South Korea or stop passing on its nuclear and missile technology to rogue states such as Pakistan and Iran in exchange for much-needed hard currency.

North Korea desperately needs large amounts of capital to restructure its Soviet-style economy and to sustain the ambitious social programs it put in place during the 1960s and 1970s. In those years, North Korea's economy was bigger than the South's, and until the early 1980s the country was more developed than China.

But instead of embracing economic reforms while keeping the Communist Party's hold on the government, as China did, Kim Jong Il is holding fast to the juche approach, which has turned North Korea into an economic basket case.

Starting in 2002, Pyongyang has half-heartedly experimented with economic reforms by allowing farmers to sell their own produce and setting up special economic zones, such as Kaesong along the South Korean border. But this has had little effect.

"The greatest problem in Pyongyang is human," said Corrada Letta, a senior adviser to the president of Kobe University in Japan who just wrote a report on North Korea for the European Union. "Political isolation led to intellectual isolation, and today in no ministry is there enough knowledge on how to go back, on what to do."

Part of the problem is North Korea's "army first" policy, which directs the bulk of the nation's intellectual, economic and social capital to its military.

At the DMZ, the soldiers in the North Korean positions overlooking the American glass and steel building complex on the other side looked sharp in their khaki uniforms and caps. But in the nearby village, many children exhibiting the stunted growth and gauntness that chronic malnutrition and disease leaves in its wake.

Still, there is no doubt many North Koreans retain a fervent belief in their leader and the only system they have ever known.

"I come here regularly to study the works of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung," said Kim Myong Chol, a 47-year-old construction worker spending his morning hunched over the late leader's writings in Pyongyang's grand National Library.

Portraits of both Kims hung overhead. Nearby computers hummed, but they could only access North Korea's intranet, not the Internet.

Connecting up with the rest of the world, it seems, is a dangerous business in North Korea.

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