The people of North Korea celebrate today the 40th anniversary of their national liberation from Japanese occupation with giant parades and demonstrations. Forty years later, President Kim Il Sung's autocratic regime appears to be firmly in control and assured of a smooth succession. Continuation of Mr. Kim's own brand of communism also appears certain.
Indications are that President Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, has taken over most party and state functions recently and that he is determined to pursue the revolutionary policy of the last four decades with equal rigidity.
Thus, little fundamental change is foreseen for North Korea, at least in the near future. The 73-year-old Kim Il Sung has ruled the nation with his personalized and iron-handed regime for 37 years -- longer than any other elected official in power today.
But in recent months there have been some signs of minor change in this nation of 20 million people. These include:
Granting entry permits to foreign (some Western) businessmen, academicians, and journalists.
Attempting to attract foreign (including Western) capital by passing a law to promote joint ventures.
Following a more active foreign policy, particlarly toward the third world.
Engaging in a dialogue with the South and making renewed peace overtures to the United States. (Korea was divided in 1945 by the US and Soviet armies shortly after Japanese occupying forces were driven out.)
But these changes are not taken as signals of a new course in policy for the North Korean regime.
Diplomatic observers here are keenly trying to find out what motives are behind these developments.
They think the efforts might partly be the result of North Korean envy of the South's industrial and technological boom and of the North's desire to modernize its economy and improve living standards -- now that it has reached a certain degree of modernization.
Other motives for incremental change being suggested are the North's long-time interest in getting US troops out of South Korea and its desire for foreign capital.
Over the past few years, Kim Il Sung had been paving the way for his son to gradually take his job. Kim Jong Il now appears to be at the helm, responsible for the main presidential functions, according to statements by foreign diplomats and private remarks by senior Korean officials. Kim Il Sung is the ``father of the nation'' and keeps his supervisory role.
This gradual shift of power is unlikely to lead to any significant change in policy, officials and observers here say. The widespread view is that the succession process, described by foreigners as the ``Kim Dynasty,'' aims at securing a comfortable, stable transition and continuity of leadership style.
North Korean officials dislike any reference to the dramatic changes in China under Deng Xiaoping and in other communist countries, and they rule out any possibility for such drastic transformation for North Korea.
``China is China, and Korea is Korea,'' Vice-Premier Chong Jung Gi told this reporter in an interview.
``Each country has its own conditions,'' Mr. Chong said. ``We have been developing our own system in accordance with the conditions and needs of our society. We are not looking after models from others.''
The North Korean brand of socialism is seen as a creation of Kim Il Sung, whom people here refer to as the ``great leader.'' Like Mao Tse-tung in the China of the 1950's and '60s, Kim Il Sung is regarded as a god-like figure. His philosophy, often called ``Kim Il Sungism,'' is treated like a religion. From schoolchildren to factory and farm workers, people of all ages have to learn and memorize Kim's ideas. His slogans are displayed everywhere. His portraits, pictures, statutes, and memorials dominate p ublic and private places in all the areas seen by this reporter.
Now that the transfer of power is completed, Kim Jong Il enjoys similar reverence. He is now usually referred to as the ``dear leader.'' In fact, any official presentation or address begins: ``Under the guidance of the great leader Kim Il Sung and the dear leader Kim Jong Il. . . .''
The North Koreans firmly believe, according to officials, that all the progress made in the country since liberation is due to the ``great leader.'' They take pride in achievements (or ``miracles,'' as some officials call it) in the economy, education, health, and other fields -- all the result of almost superhuman endeavor, they say, put forward by Kim-Il-Sungist revolutionary spirit.
Foreign visitors are impressed with North Korea's apparent fast pace of development and modernization -- at least as represented in locations where foreigners are allowed to visit. But the dogmatic implementation of revolutionary goals and the severe hardship it seems to cause in people's daily lives cannot escape the visitor's attention. ``This is an Orwellian society, with Big Brother always watching,'' said a West German businessmen familiar with this country.
Even by communist standards, Kim's regime and the cult of personality built around him and his son are seen as ``abnormal.'' A Yugoslav expert stationed here said that North Korea has the most rigid regime of the entire communist world, even including Stalinist Albania.
But North Korean officials say there is no need for fundamental change.
``Our system is the best for us and serves perfectly well our national aspirations and interests,'' said Han Ik Su, vice-chairman of the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, who is close to the leadership.
Any adjustments in the system will be to make it conform with changing conditions in the world and particularly in East Asia, it is believed.
``Do not expect an open-door policy from the North Koreans,'' said an East European observer here. ``They might open the door slightly and very carefully. But fundamentally, this will not change the system and the regime. . . . Kim Il Sungism is here to stay.''