In N. Korea, It's Still 1984

The nuclear agreement and a small free-trade experiment show a desire to rejoin the world, but not at the price of internal change

By , a senior associate at Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, visited the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in mid-January.

IF Washington is a center of monuments and museums, Pyongyang is a ''monumental city'' in its own right. Parks and broad avenues abound, but upon closer observation the parallels quickly evaporate.

''1984'' is alive and well in Pyongyang. Our guide told us that the ubiquitous personnel in military uniforms roaming the streets and guarding key buildings were not from the army, but rather from internal state security. Children with red arm bands stopped other children to find out if they were engaged in correct activities during winter holidays. During the day we saw columns of children marching to ''imbibe the spirit of the anti-Japanese struggle.''

In one large room in the People's Study House, adults hypnotically studied the works of the Great Leader. The lights in the room were turned on for the benefit of the guests and the interpreter's loud voice interrupted the quiet, but no heads turned in curiosity.

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In another room soldiers from a construction battalion sat rigidly in front of Sony monitors (not taking notes) ''learning to build a bridge'' by viewing a documentary on the construction of a Japanese bridge they are technologically incapable of building.

Typical apartments in Pyongyang were graced with one single fluorescent light tube and pictures of the ever-present Kims: father and son. No curtains or other pictures were evident. Public buildings were not heated. No food was seen for sale anywhere except in the hotel, and women could be seen searching street sweepings for twigs of wood.

Who's really in charge?

Any North Korean official or citizen of Pyongyang would tell you without hesitation that Kim Jung Il is in charge of the party, military, and government, and that he is ''exactly the same, in every way, to the Great Leader Kim Il Sung.'' But there is little public evidence to support this claim.

Some US government analysts have speculated about a power struggle or rift between the military and advocates of reform. From my limited observations, I believe the Korean Workers Party is in control and that the military and other government bureaucracies are subordinate to it. But the broader, speculative question remains: Who is in control of the party? Is it Kim Jung Il, another member of the Kim family, or others? The fact is, no one knows. And until the leadership picture becomes more transparent, neighboring countries such as South Korea and Japan have one less incentive to progress toward improved relations.

The chairman of the Committee for the Promotion of External Economic Cooperation, Kim Jong U, acknowledged that North Korea had perhaps been too dependent on its socialist trading partners and that it was time to look for new opportunities, particularly in Southeast Asia. He stressed that the free-trade zone in Rajin Sonbong (746 square kilometers in the northeast corner of North Korea along the Tumen river border with China and Russia) will be the only area in which market principles will be allowed to operate. Although the location is the prime gateway to Manchuria, the infrastructure in the zone requires significant improvement, and it is doubtful that the US or most other foreign companies will be willing to invest when there are so many other tempting venues in Asia -- Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Although North Korea clearly wants the economic benefits that it sees have accrued to China through free-trade zones, it is apparently not willing to risk the loss of political control that will be necessary to be successful.

The October agreement

Rhetorical blasts notwithstanding, North Korea seems to be meeting the letter of the framework agreement signed with the United States last October. Pyongyang's apparent objectives are to preserve its system as long as possible and to use the agreement to gain leverage in its negotiations with South Korea and Japan. To do this, the North has (at least temporarily) bartered away its nuclear program in the hope of gaining normalization of its relationship with the US. Relations with Seoul and Tokyo are on ice, with no chance for any immediate thaw.

By making progress with Washington, Pyongyang hopes to see US investment pour into the Rajin-Sonbong free-trade zone. It will then try to use this to encourage Tokyo and Seoul to move along too.

North Korea's willingness to comply with the nuclear agreement is based on a belief that it will be able to achieve diplomatic normalization with the United States independent of improving North-South relations. Other than its massive conventional force structure positioned along the demilitarized zone with the South, North Korea has only its nuclear program to interest the US in relations with this totalitarian regime. The October framework agreement is vague with respect to any requirement for North-South dialogue, which will be the major sticking point in smoothly implementing the agreement.

Though the North continually talks of the ''desire of all the Korean people'' for unification, its interlocutors consistently mention three conditions for further dialogue with the South:

* An apology from South Korean President Kim Yong Sam for his ''less than human behavior'' (putting the South on alert rather than expressing condolences) upon the death of Kim Il Sung;

* Removal of the South's National Security Law; and

* Return to the North of long-term ''unconverted'' prisoners.

These preconditions essentially put the North-South dialogue on hold. The South, for its part, has no reason to move quickly, particularly since the issue of who is in control in the North after the death of Kim Il Sung does not appear to be fully settled.

Further North Korean contact with the rest of the world can only benefit Asian security. Outside contacts will show the North Korean people the failings of the dictatorial system which has long held their allegiance captive. The United States and its allies have to take account of the threat posed by more than 1 million men under arms and a rogue nuclear program; but the North is a mouse, and we should not let its roar confuse our fundamental interests.

The future of the Korean peninsula, like the present, lies with the South -- the Republic of Korea. That must never be lost sight of as Washington proceeds to implement its framework agreement with Pyongyang. The US must not get too far out in front of its allies in Seoul and Tokyo, for that is where American equities in Northeast Asia reside, now and for the foreseeable future.

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