“Neither War Nor Peace” Regime in Korea in Untenable

21 06 2017

LP @bevvo14(ABC TV The World, 2017.06.20) Otto Warmbier has become the most recent victim of the continuing Korean War, where the most adamant participants (DPRK on one side and ROK and US on the other) still refuse to recognise each other and systematically threaten each other with preemptive strikes and nuclear retaliation.

Otto bore the brunt of unending hostility and continuing thirst for vengeance, which dominate politics on and around the Korean peninsula. His tragic death is a reminder to all of us that the “neither war nor peace” regime is unacceptable and is fraught with new dramas and victims. Tourism may help to heal the conflict, but it’s also most susceptible to political football and puts innocent or reckless people at a heightened risk. That’s why the zones of inter-Korean economic cooperation and tourism have been shut down one after another in the last decade. Unless the war is officially over, the Koreans, Americans and anyone involved in this conflict will be in real danger of arrest, abuse or even execution.

N. Korean ski resort anticipates 5,000 customers per day

13 08 2013

masik-ski-project-north-korea(BY CHAD O’CARROLL, NK News, 12 August 2013)

LONDON – North Korean authorities expect that 5,000 people will visit the Masik-ryong Ski resort each day – 250 days per year – once construction is completed, a planning document seen by NK News reveals.

Charging $50 per person, the People’s Committee in Kangwon Province and DPRK Ministry of Sports anticipate a net revenue stream of $62.5 million from the ski resort per year, of which $43.75 million will be profit.

The planning document says that North Korean customers from nearby provinces will form the backbone of anticipated demand, followed by international tourists from “surrounding nations”.

“We also plan to host the Asian or international competitions, or hold business matches and to invite many ski fans and cheering enthusiasts,” the document says in a passage detailing the predicted income.

But at $50 per day the ski resort entry fee is extremely expensive for the average North Korean, who the CIA World Factbook estimates earns just $1800 per year.

Despite the apparent contradiction, the planning document cites million dollar profit projections to convince foreign investors to help fund infrastructure for the resort, including ski-lifts, entertainment facilities, and unspecified “operation technology”.

“Masik-ryong Ski Resort is going to increase to the maximum, the multiplicative and accelerant effectiveness of the investments by introducing energy-cycling technology and constant development operation strategy, which are the world trends in designing and operation management”, the planners claim.

Chris Green, Manager of International Affairs at the Daily NK, says the project is “pie in the sky” and indicative of dubious North Korean business planning practices.

“This is classic North Korea. 1) Attract foreign currency while 2) providing plausible evidence of development that 3) placates some North Koreans that their country is in the same ballpark as South Korea or China,” he told NK News.


While the planning document says that the resort is being built to “improve” the “material and cultural lives of the people,” the push to build the massive ski resort comes just one year after South Korea was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics to be hosted at Pyeongchang. Some experts suggest that the Masik-ryong development plans are intrinsically linked.

“As usual, North Koreans are trying to outperform their southern neighbors by over-investing in ideologically important mega-projects”, said Leonid Petrov, a North Korea expert at Australia National University. “The outcome is likely to be usual too. Masik ski resort will be used by the regime for buying the loyalty of the elites, while sending the message of achieved affluence and happiness to the common people,” he added.

But given the scale of the Masik-ryong Ski resort plans, it is possible that North Korea might use the prestige project to justify a bid to co-host the Winter Olympics with South Korea.

“I think a push for co-hosting is possible, but not necessarily sincere: Masikryeong won’t meet International Olympic Committee standards anyway,” Chris Green told NK News.


Aside from profit forecasts, the planning document also reveals interesting details about the scope of development at the Masik-ryong ski resort.

Part one of the authorities’ plan, scheduled for completion by the end of 2013, is to complete the building of a junior level ski course and four “high-level ski runways”, a hotel, ski service halls, ski school, ski kindergarten, children’s snow park and children’s skating ground.

Before the end of the year the North Korean developers also hope to build “a combined lift, two surface lifts, one moving carpet and other equipment and facilities.”

Stage two, which will kick off in 2014, aims to build one sleigh course and seven medium-level and high-level ski courses, a terrace park, a ski park, a children’s skating ground, snow park and “various four season playgrounds and amusement facilities”.

Furthermore, the planning document says that Masikryong will be an environment-friendly ski resort, powered “entirely through windmills and solar-energy roofs”.

Since being announced to the nation, North Korean propagandists have regularly reported on progress at Masikryong frequently on TV, radio, and newspapers. The construction site has also been visited by key leadership figures, including Kim Jong Un.

Recent reports suggested that construction at Masik-ryong had been seriously set back due to heavy rains. But North Korean media quickly hit-back, with the Rodong Sinmun saying that soldiers had installed “all kinds of facilities” to ensure work could continue “regardless of heavy rains”.

The fast-pace of construction at the ski resort has been hailed by North Korea’s propagandists as a new “Masik speed,” a term now used by state media to describe any project needing urgent completion.


10 04 2013

NK tourism suspended(NKnews.org, April 9, 2013) A China based travel company has announced that all tours to North Korea will be suspended from tomorrow due to spiraling tensions on the peninsula.

The news followed a warning made by Pyongyang today which advised foreigners based in South Korea to start preparing evacuation plans in the event that conflict takes place in the coming days.

Dandong based “Explore North Korea” published a notification this evening at 9:43pm Chinese time which told customers that all tours to the DPRK would be cancelled until further notice.

Following a nearly two hour long meeting with North Korean tour officials, the Chinese company posted an advisory adding that tours would only be resumed once official confirmation was provided by North Korea.

“Explore North Korea” normally brings western visitors to North Korea and would have normally carried out between five tours this April, having departure dates scheduled April 11, 13, 15, 17, and 20.

Another China based tourist source confirmed the development to NK NEWS by email today, adding that the Dandong Tourism Board would not be accepting Chinese citizens into North Korea as of April 10, 2013.

However, western tour operators “Koryo Tours” and ”Young Pioneer Tours” both said today that there were no plans to cancel any of their forthcoming tours, making it unclear if the suspension was being targeted at all companies.

Leonid Petrov, a researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra., told NK NEWS today that the moved showed a “logical” and “consistent” approach to escalating a feeling of crisis on the peninsula: “War zones are incompatible with joint industrial parks, travel groups or even with foreign embassies. Pyongyang wants to convince the world that Korea will soon be engulfed in the flames of nuclear inferno. The scary truth is that this can really happen regardless of who makes the first shot.”

Though directly unrelated to the latest news, Sweden based Korea Konsult posted a warning four days ago saying that all tours throughout April would be cancelled following the latest travel advisory warning issued by the Swedish Foreign Ministry.

For its part, the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to say that travel to North Korea remains unaffected by the latest tensions, noting, ”Our overall assessment is that there is currently no immediate increased risk or danger to those living in or travelling to the DPRK as a result of these statements.”

The potential suspension of tours to North Korea follows warnings sent to Foreign embassies in Pyongyang last week which stated North Korean authorities would be “unable to guarantee the safety of embassies and international organisations in the country in the event of conflict from April 10.”

While the significance of the April 10 date is uncertain, it comes just days before North Korea’s April 15 celebration of the 101st anniversary of founding leader Kim Il Sung.

Last year North Korea launched a long-range rocket three days before the 100 year celebration of his birth, and there are fears that Pyongyang may be planning a mid-range missile launch to coincide in some way with this year’s anniversary.

Despite the latest developments, some observers still believe that the latest warnings are simply rhetoric and nothing more than a North Korean attempt to ratchet up tension to levels unseen in recent years.

Inter-Korean relations are at a low point following weeks of recriminations between Seoul and Pyongyang. Relations spiraled out of control following UN condemnation of North Korea’s third nuclear test in February.

Tourists in North Korea Unable To Send Postcards Home Due To “Sanctions”

21 02 2013

No-Postcards-to-North-Korea(NKnews.org, 20 February 2013)  Western tourists in North Korea have been banned from sending postcards home to friends and loved ones, supposedly as a result of “sanctions” passed in recent days and weeks.

In particular, the new “sanctions” make it impossible for European tourists to send postcards home.  The development was reported to NK NEWS by two separate tourist groups who were in the country during the nuclear test and its aftermath.

When trying to send cards home, North Korean guides told European visitors that they were not allowed to send the materials due to “sanctions” passed in recent days.

One North Korean group leader told his visitors that the ban was a result of “Chinese sanctions”, though this looks unlikely because American tourists in another group were allowed to send their own cards home.

When asked for further details, North Korean tourist guides explained that the ban on sending to Europe was because mail would not be delivered to certain destinations. They said that they did not know how long the limitations would last.

While the European Union did apply new unilateral sanctions on North Korea in recent days, none appear to have been focused on the North Korean postal system. These latest sanctions were instead focused on increasing travel bans, asset freezes, and the number of EU sanctioned companies.

It is not clear which countries are behind the latest development, if any. There also remains the possibility that this could be an arbitrary measure on the North Korean side.

Reacting to the potential postal sanctions, Dr. Leonid Petrov, a North Korea Expert at Australian National University said,

    Sanctions never bring anything good and often bite both sides. Sanctions against North Korea, paradoxically, help the Kim’s tyranny survive. Totalitarian regimes can exist only in isolation, where common people have little or no exposure to outside information. The whole philosophy of North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile antics is designed to keep the country isolated.

North Korea has long limited the amount of mail coming in to the country and many third countries have controls over what can be sent there in packages. However, postcards and small letters being sent from the country have not traditionally been restricted. If the latest ban is a result of external sanctions, they would seriously undermine the spirit of the Universal Postal Union, a multilateral postal framework.

As a UN member, North Korea joined the Universal Postal Union in 1974, but has direct postal arrangements with only a select group of countries. But one objective of the union is that, “freedom of transit shall be guaranteed throughout the entire territory of the Union.” This has historically meant that items like postcards and small letters should be deliverable, regardless of where they are sent from.

In the United States, mail is regulated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control and the agency limits mail to North Korea solely to First-class letters/postcards and matters for the blind. All merchandise, currency, precious metals, jewelry, chemical/biological/radioactive materials and others are prohibited.

In related news, a business visitor who returned from the DPRK yesterday told NK NEWS that his North Korean partners were “extremely worried” about what China might do in reaction to the latest nuclear test. He said among his DPRK based partners fear that China could be “deadly serious” about punishing Pyongyang through sanctions that make ordinary business harder to conduct.

North Korea conducted its third nuclear test last week, in face of significant international pressure. The move was instantly condemned by the UN and many observers believe that further sanctions will be applied as a punishment for North Korea in the weeks ahead.

Foreign Films Show in North Korea

3 10 2010

by Ian Timberlake (AFP, Pyongyang, 01 Oct. 2010)

One of the world’s most tightly-controlled societies got a rare glimpse of the outside world at the Pyongyang International Film Festival last week, where even Western films were screened. Communist North Korea strictly controls access to information, including via mobile phones and the Internet, leaving most North Koreans in ignorance of the wider world. A tour guide had never heard of the late pop star Michael Jackson. Yet participants in the 12th Pyongyang International Film Festival, which ended on September 24, say it helped open a window for the impoverished country.

Only a minority of the population was able to attend the event, but it gave them access to documentaries, feature films and shorts from several European countries and Canada. Productions from Asia, Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere were also on the programme. Henrik Nydqvist, a freelance film producer who was Sweden’s official delegate to the eight-day event, said anything which breaks North Korea’s isolation is positive. “We think we’re doing something good here,” he said. “We feel we can make some positive impact… and that outweighs the other things.”

The festival has its own venue, the Pyongyang International Cinema House, which includes a 2,000-seat theatre as well as other smaller halls. Red, blue and green neon signs hanging in the atrium beam the country’s foreign policy slogan: “Peace, independence, friendship”. A 300-seat hall was almost completely filled with Koreans for an afternoon screening of the comedy “Pieces d’Identites” from Congo. They sat quietly behind padlocked doors in a hot, airless room for the story of an African king who travels to Belgium in search of his daughter, who has been forced to work as a nude dancer.

The film’s images include bordellos and a heaving African nightclub, depicting a world alien to North Koreans who are bombarded with propaganda from childhood and whose showpiece capital Pyongyang appears to be stuck in a time decades past. Such images can only help to bring about change, said a source connected with the film festival. “They have in mind: Why is North Korea, my country, different?” Connections are required to gain admission and authorities do not want the rural masses outside of the capital to see foreign movies, he said. “I watched some poor people who wanted to see the movie, and the guard stopped them.”

At the event’s closing ceremony attended by more than 1,500 people, including foreign diplomats, Nydqvist read a letter of thanks to Kim Jong-Il, ruler of the country which has twice tested nuclear weapons and is under various United States and United Nations sanctions. “The Pyongyang International Film Festival is unique,” the letter said, thanking Kim for his “care and interest.” Such messages are common practice in the country, Nydqvist said.

Kim, 68, is said to have a collection of 20,000 Hollywood movies, and engineered the kidnap in 1978 of a South Korean director to help him make films. He has also written books about movie-making, including one slim volume which says cinema “has the task of contributing to the development of people to be true communists and to the revolutionisation and working-classisation of the whole of society.” At Pyongyang’s Korean Film Studio, the country’s centre of film production, a director said Kim had visited “on more than 500 occasions”. Kim has also provided “guidance” to the film festival, Nydqvist said, citing organisers of the event. But the ailing Kim’s time on the political stage appears to be nearing an end.

On Thursday, 30 Sep., the regime released the first-ever official photograph of Kim Jong-Il’s youngest son Kim Jong-Un, which analysts said confirms the young man’s status as leader-in-waiting. Jong-Un, believed aged about 27, has assumed powerful posts in North Korea’s ruling party, state media said after the Workers’ Party of Korea held its highest-level meeting in 30 years on Tuesday. Whether he shares his father’s cinematic obsession is unknown but Jong-Un did have an interest in Hollywood tough-guy Jean-Claude Van Damme, say staff and friends at Swiss international schools where he studied, according to newspaper reports.

Several North Korean films were screened at the festival, including “Hong Kil Dong,” a 1986 production about a type of Robin Hood martial arts fighter in ancient times, whose flute-playing induces terror in the villains. The festival programme listed Germany’s “Four Minutes”, the Serbian documentary “Let There Be Light”, and Swedish feature “As It Is In Heaven” among the many international offerings.

An organising committee chooses delegates from among those who apply, Nydqvist said, adding their expenses in Pyongyang are paid for but airfare is not. A Briton and a Vietnamese were among the members of the film jury which chose a Chinese film, “Walking to School,” as the grand prize winner. China won at the previous festival, too, but Nydqvist said: “I’ve never heard anything suggesting that the jury was encouraged to favour a specific country…”

See the full text of the article here…

NK`s Seizure Threat Rattles S. Korean Investors

24 03 2010

Dong-A Ilbo (March 24, 2010) “I’d hoped that the inter-Korean tours would be resumed after a hiatus of more than 20 months. But North Korea has threatened to seize our assets in the North. I’m just aghast.” Ilyeon Investment Chairman Ahn Gyo-shik is nervous over Pyongyang’s latest moves. “I feel helpless since our company is rattled by external conditions, not our management’s ability,” he said.

The North has threatened to seize real estate owned by South Korean businessmen unless they visit North Korea for a land survey by Thursday. Ahn said he will cross the inter-Korean border with staff from the subcontractors of Hyundai Asan Corp. early Thursday morning.

Since launching a tour to Mount Kumgang in 2003, Ahn has built Kumgang Family Beach Hotel (photo) and a sashimi restaurant in the North. He has even served as a chairman of the Corporate Conference for South Korean Companies Doing Business at Mount Kumgang, a gathering of Hyundai Asan’s subcontractors.

In an interview with The Dong-A Ilbo yesterday, Ahn said the head of a conference member company recently died of a heart attack due to severe stress from his business in North Korea. The suspension of the inter-Korean tours caused the late chairman’s company to teeter on the verge of bankruptcy, causing his death at age 55, Ahn said.

Ilyeon’s prospects are no better. Ahn has invested 14.7 billion won (12.9 million U.S. dollars) in his North Korea venture, including 13.4 billion won (11.8 million dollars) to build the hotel and additional facilities. His company is six billion won (5.3 million dollars) in the red due to the suspension of the Kumgang tour. Its deficit slightly decreased in early 2007, but the killing of a South Korean tourist at Mount Kumgang in July 2008 by a North Korean soldier dealt another serious blow.

Since the shooting, Ilyeon has slashed the number of hotel staff from 119 (including North Korean workers) to three. Over the same period, Ilyeon’s office in South Korea has also downsized from 15 workers to four. Ilyeon director Kim Rae-hyeon said, “Most member companies of the conference are almost bankrupt but cannot file for bankruptcy since their assets are in North Korea.”

On the North’s land survey Thursday, Ahn said, “Considering precedents and North Korea’s recent moves, Pyongyang is unlikely to make just empty threats. In the worst-case scenario, the North will confiscate assets held by South Korean companies after compensating South Korean investors with part of their investment.” Worryingly, a Chinese tourist agency has released a six-day tour of both Kaesong and Mount Kumgang. This could encourage the North to deprive South Korean companies of their right to run businesses in the North.

Yang Mu-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said, “North Korea could mention Hyundai Asan’s underpayment of 400 million dollars as grounds to freeze assets held by South Korean companies. The North could also freeze the properties of South Korean companies, force them to recall their staff, annul existing contracts, and sign contracts with new companies.” Other experts, however, say the North is unlikely to confiscate South Korean companies’ assets or deprive them of their exclusive right to do business.

For Thursday’s survey, Hyundai Asan said yesterday that 52 staff from 33 companies such as Hyundai Asan, its subcontractors, Korea Tourism Organization and Emerson Pacific will make the trip. Forty-eight workers from Hyundai Asan and its subcontractors had applied for their visit.

Shim Sang-jin, in charge of Mount Kumgang affairs for Hyundai Asan, will lead the group. The group will board a bus in Seoul and pass through the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Office in Goseong County, Gangwon Province, around 9:40 a.m. Thursday. Officials of the tourism organization will head for the North today.

Read an update N. Korea Threatens to Seize S. Korean Assets at Mount Kumgang (25 Mar.2010)

N. Korea Threatens to Scrap Suspended Mountain Tour Program

11 03 2010

SEOUL (Yonhap) — North Korea on March 11 claimed that the Seoul government is effectively blocking South Koreans from visiting its tourist attractions and warned it could revoke all deals covering inter-Korean tours.

The North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee statement carried by the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) follows a fresh round of talks held in February that failed to reach a compromise on restarting tourism to the scenic Mt. Kumgang on the east coast and Kaesong, the ancient capital of the Koryo Dynasty (A.D. 918-1392).

At the meeting, Seoul demanded an official apology for the shooting death of a female South Korean tourist in July 2008 and a pledge that such an incident will not occur in the future. The South has said a formal investigation must be carried out to determine why the shooting occurred. All tours to the famed mountain were suspended right after the shooting, while visits to Kaesong were stopped in December of the same year.

“If the South Korean government continues to block the travel routes while making false accusations, we will be left with no choice but to take extreme measures,” an unidentified spokesman for the committee said. The spokesman said such measures will include the nullification of contracts with South Korea’s Hyundai Asan, which has organized the tours, and freezing real estate and other assets. He did not go into further detail.

The official also claimed that there is growing demand from within the country and abroad to open Mt. Kumgang and Kaesong to tourists. “Kaesong will be open to tourists starting this month, while tours to Mt. Kumgang will be permitted from April,” the spokesman said, adding that South Korean tourists who visit the two areas will be afforded complete safety and offered every convenience.

In addition, he stressed that whether or not South Korean tours to the two locations will restart or not will depend entirely on South Korean authorities, who will have to bear full responsibility if the cross-border exchange does not take place. The Asia-Pacific Peace Committee official emphasized that Pyongyang has said on numerous occasions in talks with Hyundai Asan executives that every effort will be taken to ensure the safety of South Korean tourists in the future. He pointed out that the North already explained in detail that the death of the female tourist was caused by her crossing into a “no entry” zone in violation of set rules.

Despite the latest threat, South Korea made clear that the resumption of tours to Kaesong and Mt. Kumgang depends entirely on Pyongyang providing firm assurances that the safety of tourists will be protected. “There is no change in the government’s stance that concrete measures must be taken to ensure the safety of tourists,” said Unification Ministry spokesperson Chun Hae-sung. He said that all outstanding issues related to the tours must be handled through dialogue.

Voyage hors du temps en Corée du Nord

20 10 2009

Ryugyong_memorialPar Arnaud de la Grange, envoyé spécial à Pyongyang, (Le Figaro 20/10/2009)

Parcourir la campagne nord-coréenne, c’est un peu se promener dans un tableau de Poussin, où la paysannerie du XVIIe siècle s’affaire paisiblement à récolter le blé ou le raisin. Sur le vert tendre des rizières ou le brun grillé des champs de maïs passent des silhouettes de femmes portant sur le dos des sortes de hottes formées d’un cadre de bois triangulaire, que, même à Pyongyang, l’on vous montre dans les musées. En 2009, dans ce bout d’Asie de l’Est communiste, on repique le riz à la main, la bête de travail est un luxe, le tracteur un rêve. Dans les provinces traversées lors de deux incursions vers l’Ouest et le Sud, toutefois, les champs sont bien entretenus et les villages en apparence guère plus misérables que dans bien des pays de la région.

La règle de ce voyage dans le pays le plus fermé de la planète – se fondre dans le paysage comme l’un des rares touristes le visitant – impose bien sûr une vision singulièrement tronquée d’une Corée du Nord où la propagande est érigée au rang de discipline artistique. On ne voit que ce que l’on vous montre, et ce que l’on peut glaner dans les interstices. Pyongyang, cette fois, donne plutôt l’impression d’un voyage à Sofia ou à Minsk dans les années 1950. Les bâtiments, le tramway, les boutiques en sous-sol des immeubles, tout sent les grandes heures de l’économie planifiée. Pour autant, ce n’est pas cette image caricaturale d’une ville où des hordes de citadins efflanqués et déprimés hantent de grises rues. Au contraire, il se dégage de la «ville des saules» une étonnante impression de calme, avec un air dont les rares voitures ne suffisent à altérer la pureté, de vastes avenues arborées et des rues où les seules agressions publicitaires sont les fresques à la gloire du régime. On y croise des cadres en costume, des femmes à la rassurante et universelle coquetterie, des couples qui flirtent dans les parcs ou le long des rives du fleuve Taedong. Bien sûr, Pyongyang est une vitrine, et les carreaux sont plus sales dans les bourgades de province, voire dans les rues excentrées de la capitale. Et il y a aussi ces longues files de citadins fatigués attendant des bus asthéniques, ces vieilles dames courbées sous le poids d’un sac de toile contenant tous leurs trésors…

…La Chine, avec qui se font plus des trois quarts du commerce, reste bien le poumon du pays. C’est pour cela qu’il y a dix jours, le «Cher Leader» est venu lui-même à l’aéroport accueillir le premier ministre chinois, Wen Jiabao, avant de tenir en sa présence des propos plus conciliants sur le nucléaire. Les Chinois avaient été passablement irrités des dernières frasques atomiques d’un protégé, qui risquaient de leur faire perdre la face. Sous peine de voir la perfusion chinoise s’étrangler, Kim Jong-il devait donner des gages. D’autant que l’hiver approche, avec de cruels besoins en pétrole ou nourriture. Régi depuis quinze ans par des cycles de tensions suivis de laborieuses tractations, le grand jeu diplomatique autour de la Corée du Nord est aussi une affaire de saisons.

See the full text of this article here…

See more photos by Arnaud De La Grange here…

The Paradox of North Korea

10 10 2009

Pyongyang_Ryugyong HTL John Sudworth (BBC News, 7 October 2009)

…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…

…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.

See video footage and read the full text here…

North Korea’s Kim Jong Il Reasserts Control

8 10 2009

Pyongyang Arirangby Louisa Lim, NPR, 8 October 2009

…Among the elite, the rumors swirl about another display of loyalty: a spectacular fireworks extravaganza held in April that is said to have been orchestrated by Kim Jong Il’s favored successor, his youngest son, 26-year-old Kim Jong Un.

His name is now widely known in North Korea compared with a year ago, but it’s not mentioned in public. During our five days in the country, only one person directly answered a question about the man known as the “Young General.” That was Kim Sun Hee, a state-sponsored artist who has spent six months painstakingly capturing the fireworks display on canvas.

“If the ‘Young General’ Kim Jong Un organized these fireworks, it [captured] all the minds of all the people,” she said, echoing an idea much repeated here — of “single-hearted unity,” melding the minds of the leader, the party and the masses.

These days, his father, Kim Jong Il, is firmly back in control, apparently recovered, though sleeker after his illness. Five days ago, he was seen bear-hugging Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at a lavish welcoming ceremony at the airport. Some observers, such as Leonid Petrov, a North Korea expert at the University of Sydney, now believe his succession has been put on hold.

“Kim Jong Un has in the past months got great popularity among the younger representatives within the army, within the party, as opposed to the old guard,” says Petrov. “Here, we can see a sort of brewing conflict, which at the moment is not visible, but within the elite they probably detected some signs of interest in reform, change, experimentation. And I think Kim Jong Il decided simply to put it on hold. The family is not interested in any change.”

Moves toward economic liberalization, too, are being rolled back. This spring, North Korea aired its first television commercial ever, for Taedonggang beer. That ad was shown for a few weeks, but it is no longer running.

The authorities also have tightened controls on local markets. Their opening hours have been cut, and efforts are reportedly being made to restrict market trading to older women only, thereby forcing men and younger women to return to state-run work units instead of engaging in market activities.

Petrov says the regime is clamping down on private enterprise, driving it underground. “Back in 2003, Pyongyang looked like one big market. Now, we can see there’s no trade on the streets. Trade and market and commercial activity is deemed to be something ideologically contaminating, something alien to the very nature of socialist society,” he says…

Read the full text of this article and listen to the audio file here…

Read and listen to more stories by Louisa Lim about her recent trip to North Korea:

U.S. Is Main Foe In North Korea’s ‘History’ Lessons (NPR, 16 October 2009)

Facade Of Perfection Slips Occasionally In N. Korea (NPR, 12 October 2009)