The paradox of North Korea

BBC News/October 7, 2009

As our plane begins its descent the complementary reading material we've been given leaves little doubt that, where we're going, one man is still very much in charge.

"An atmosphere of joy prevails in households, streets, villages and all other places," the Korea Times magazine gushes next to a picture of the beaming leader, Kim Jong-il.

On the ground, North Korea's leadership cult is even more plain to see.

In central Pyongyang we're taken to the giant bronze statue of his father, the country's founder Kim Il-Sung.

Citizens, some in military uniform, come to lay flowers at this shrine to one of the most effective systems of control ever envisaged.

It is one that remained almost unchanged for more than 60 years.

The people here face stringent restrictions on their freedoms of speech and movement.

The BBC's attempts to record sound and pictures in the streets of Pyongyang are met with a stiff response. Our camera and tapes were temporarily seized by government minders.

We do, however, catch glimpses of daily life, at least of that led by the privileged citizens of Pyongyang.

On the face of it, given North Korea's broken command economy and the added burden of international sanctions, the country's capital looks in pretty good shape.

The Ryugyong Hotel, an unfinished 105-storey hulk that has long loomed large on the Pyongyang skyline as a symbol of failure, is finally beginning to resemble its original conception.

The giant, creaking, pyramid structure is being made sound and then clad in glass.

Some of the city's foreign residents suggest that there are more cars on the street lately, although the majority of citizens travel on foot or on bike, making their way to and from work in the autumn sunshine.

A campaign to boost productivity is under way; repairs are being made and many more of the buildings are being given a lick of paint.

But the makeover masks a grim underlying reality.

Just a few miles out of the capital the traffic almost disappears and the main highway south turns into what is, in effect, one of the world's widest bicycle lanes.

From time to time we pass a broken-down army Jeep, bonnet up, with soldiers peering into the engine.

A collapsed bridge on the main highway forces our bus driver to make a detour through countryside, and into another century.

There is precious little mechanisation, the crops are being harvested by hand with the maize loaded on to waiting oxen carts, and the poverty is everywhere.

This year the country is once again predicted to face big food shortfalls.

North Korea prefers to show the few tourists, and the even fewer journalists given permission to come, an altogether different image.

Most visitors at this time of year will find themselves watching the giant gymnastics displays, known as the Arirang Mass Games.

It's meant, quite clearly, as a metaphor for the state - a body of people moving in perfect unison, united against a hostile, outside world.

That could also sum up its military strategy.

North Korea looks across the heavily armed border to its South Korean neighbour, backed by a nuclear superpower, the United States.

With the nuclear powers China and Russia on its other border, one of the world's most isolated and friendless countries believes it has a strong and compelling logic for wanting its own atomic bombs.

On our trip to the border area, I ask one of the guides, a lieutenant in the North Korean army, about the nuclear weapons programme.

"How important is it to your country's military strategy?" I wonder.

"We need our nuclear weapons to defend the peace," he replies. "We'll give ours up, when America gives up theirs."

Back in Pyongyang we say goodbye to our minders - educated, friendly people (despite the odd run-in) but also, of course, members of the North Korean elite and strong supporters of the state.

It is impossible to know what the average North Korean is really thinking at the moment.

They would be unlikely to risk speaking their mind to a visiting BBC reporter, even if we were allowed to get close to them.

Nonetheless, it is fair to say that while the outside world struggles to respond to Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, visitors are met with a striking paradox.

This may be a deeply authoritarian and impoverished place, but at least some of its citizens appear genuinely proud and defiant.

Upon whatever it is based, it is that strand of legitimacy, as much as the physical controls, that has helped make North Korea so resilient for so long.

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