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North Korea Marks a 60th Anniversary

The nation opens the door to some foreigners for the festivities. Those who have visited before offer differing views on how much has changed.

October 19, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

PYONGYANG, North Korea — Kim Jong Il threw a bit of a birthday bash for North Korea's family-run dictatorship last week.

Convoys of military trucks stacked with boxes of new 21-inch color TVs rumbled through this scruffy capital -- gifts from Kim to his troops -- and soldiers lugged them home on their backs. Despite chronic electricity shortages, the regime found enough juice to light up the town at night, bathing Pyongyang's massive monuments to founding father Kim Il Sung in white light.

There was even the rare sight of foreigners being herded through hotel lobbies and onto sightseeing buses. One of the most tightly sealed countries on Earth welcomed a few thousand tourists for Arirang, its stadium show of dance, music and mass gymnastics celebrating North Korea's supposedly glorious victories over Japanese and American imperialists.

The gifts, electricity and invitations were ostensibly a way to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean Workers Party and the Kim family that has ruled through it ever since. But they may also have been part of an effort by North Korea's leadership to shore up its control at home and image abroad as it prepares for a new round of international negotiations over its nuclear weapons program.

The previous round ended with a vague pledge by North Korea to abandon its nuclear activities in exchange for energy assistance and other economic aid. Foreign diplomats, aid workers and investors are squinting at that and other recent moves by North Korea, trying to assess the country's economy and whether the proud but hungry nation of 23 million is poised to work out the details and cement a deal.

Hard evidence is sketchy. Three years ago, the country introduced some small markets and an incentive system in its sclerotic state-run economy. Regular visitors say they have detected some improvement in living standards: fewer power outages and more goods in shops, largely due to rising trade, legal and illegal, with China.

"I can see a lot of change," said Laing Jian, 50, a businessman from China who runs a digital printing company and has been doing business in Pyongyang since 1990. "The first is economic; people's lives are better. The second is in people's thoughts. They are thinking more of opening." But being Chinese, Jian knows what a real economic boom looks like. And this isn't it, he said.

"They can open a bit but they can't reform," he said, standing at the Monument to Party Founding, a massive architectural ode to socialism in the center of Pyongyang. "This is truly a socialist country."

Other foreigners returning last week for their first look at North Korea in years said they saw the same vista of stagnation. Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar on North Korea who lived in Pyongyang in the 1980s, said, "It looks exactly the same now as it did when I was last here, though you hear from people that there are improvements."

Adding to the puzzlement of Lankov and others were the government's recent decisions to close private grain markets and shut all foreign aid operations, which feed nearly a third of the population. The regime says it will tolerate only "development" -- not "humanitarian" -- programs after December.

Some observers say the moves are driven partly by North Korea's humiliation over depending on handouts, and partly by a fear of what it sees as the prying eyes of the foreigners monitoring aid distribution. They argue that the regime doesn't want to come to the nuclear negotiating table weakened by the acknowledgment that it can't feed its own people.

Others wonder whether the state takeover of grain sales and distribution signals a return to full-blown central economic planning, or is just the government's attempt to protect the citizens most vulnerable to starvation. Private markets have proved so attractive to farmers that grain prices have risen out of reach for some residents.

Kim Jong Il isn't commenting on the developments, and foreigners who live in North Korea -- there are a few hundred -- say they have only a sketchy reading of the regime's intentions. Visitors get an even more limited view, escorted almost everywhere by government minders who direct where cameras can be pointed and which citizens can be spoken to.

"Everybody will say the same thing," North Korean tour guide and interpreter Paek Su Ryon told a group of visiting Western journalists as she prepared to translate one more attempt to get a North Korean to talk.

At an ostentatious floral display in Pyongyang featuring kimilsungia and kimjongilia, flower species named after the father-son rulers, a man was pulled aside and asked his opinion of the show.

"It was very wonderful and excellent -- it is just as the Korean people feel," Kim Sung Il, 33, an army officer, said. Daily life was fine, he said.

"Thanks to the wise guidance of the Great Leader it has greatly improved and the army and the people are all roused in the struggle for a prosperous country."

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