Inside the Time Warp that is North Korea

26 02 2012

Tom Farrell (The Irish Times, 25 February 2012)

Though in power for just over two months, the personality cult around Kim Jong-un is already thriving, reports the first Irish journalist inside the country since his accession

THE NATION he ruled may still be an international pariah, but to judge by the International Friendship Exhibition, the late Kim Jong-il was a popular man indeed.The building housing the exhibition rises from the pine-forested hills of North Pyongan province, close to North Korea’s border with China. It appears as a huge box of burnished concrete, topped by a multi-coloured “hip saddle” roof. Like most buildings erected by the North Korean state, it seems like a cross-breeding of Soviet modernism and Korean tradition, a melding of the communist and the Confucian. Flanking the immense patterned doors are soldiers in fur hats, each carrying a silver-plated Kalashnikov rifle.

When Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader”, died on December 17th last, State television broadcast images from the snowy capital of Pyongyang. In the streets, in public squares and at various monuments, crowds of North Koreans wailed. The purpose of the exhibition parallels that footage, purporting to demonstrate that the love of foreigners for North Korea’s rulers almost matches that of its subjects.The world’s youngest head of state led the Dear Leader’s funeral procession. At 29, Kim Jong-un has already been named Great Successor.

An editorial in the Pyongyang Times on December 24th stated: “The journey through our revolution is arduous and the present situation is grave, but no force in the world can check the revolutionary advance our party, army and people are making under the wise leadership of Kim Jong-un.”

…On February 16th, what would have been Kim Jong-il’s 70th birthday was marked with parades, gymnastic displays and the unveiling of statues. Worship of the Dear Leader plays an important part in buttressing the authority of the latest incarnation of North Korea’s personality cult.

THERE IS plenty of evidence of this phenomenon in Pyongyang. At first glance, the city gives the impression, accentuated by the fierce cold, that the clocks stopped ticking 30 years ago. China next door may have embraced all the trappings of consumer culture, but its flashing neon signs and billboards for cosmetics or soft drinks are almost non-existent here.Yet cranes are visible on the skyline. In some parts of the city construction sites are alive with the splutter of jackhammers and helmeted construction workers. These could be sites in the South Korean capital of Seoul were it not for the bundles of red flags fluttering nearby.

Much of this building is going on in the central sectors of the capital and close to the banks of the river Taedong. Further out fresh apartments are going up: the government recently pledged to house an extra 100,000 people in the city of three million in 2012. Visitors to Pyongyang have noticed an upsurge in the amount of Japanese and European vehicles on the capital’s once somnolent traffic lanes. “Far more than even 12 months ago,” says a British businessman who travels regularly to Pyongyang…

WATCHING ALL this, it could be tempting to surmise that perhaps the first stirrings of a Soviet-style glasnost or perestroika are under way. But such speculation would be premature. The surge in construction work around Pyongyang was authorised some years ago by Kim Jong-il. Scaffolding and sheeting now cover the most hallowed of the estimated 34,000 separate statues of the dynasty’s founder. At Mansu hill, a 65-foot high statue of Kim Il-sung stands in burnished bronze, one arm held aloft. North Korea will mark the centenary of his birth in April. Far from indicating a new engagement with the outside world, the building work anticipates a further burst of cultic worship.

“What I’ve been struck by since January is how much Kim Jong-un has been paraded by the regime,” says Aidan Foster Carter, an expert on North Korea at Leeds University. “After Kim Il-sung died in 1994, the country effectively shut down for three years and Kim Jong-il was little seen. It’s the opposite now: the regime’s rhetoric has been very strong since 17th December.”This dynastic regime is notorious for its belligerent nature, having conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and with international talks to resolve the nuclear issue having stalled. North Korea also possesses intermediate-range ballistic missiles including the Taepodong-2, which could theoretically hit targets in Alaska.

The neophyte Kim Jong-un is surrounded by ageing and highly conservative generals and ministers, most notably his uncle, Jang Song-taek (66), the vice-chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission. His grandfather formulated a national ideology called Juche (self-reliance) and his father augmented this with a policy of Songun, roughly translating as “military first politics”. It is rumoured that Jang Song-taek was the de facto North Korean premier during Kim Jong-il’s final years, when he was debilitated by a stroke.“Jang Song-taek is a purely political figure, very conservative and ostensibly anti-market,” says Leonid Petrov, a Korea expert at the University of Sydney. “In this, Jang Song-taek ensures Kim Jong-un’s accession and stability in North Korea. Any reform in North Korea will destabilise the situation.”

…Once outside the capital, the North Korean countryside in winter is spectacularly bleak. The main highways usually do not see much traffic, but when they ice over groups of a dozen or more people materialise, hacking and pounding the roads with shovels. Bundles of red flags rise at intervals from the countryside. In fields and on the crests of hills, stone slabs rise decorated with Korean characters. These translate into such slogans as “Long Live Kim Il-sung” or “We will do as the party tells us”…

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