A Peek Into Secretive N. Korea

AS a North Korean patriot, the young man works his library job seven days a week in service to the late strongman Kim Il Sung.

''I devote myself to my country. I devote myself to the 'Great Leader,' '' he says, referring to the president who died last July.

But on the fringes of this seemingly exclusive devotion, frowned-on foreign influences are creeping in. ''I have seen American films during my education,'' he admits. ''I know Michael Jackson is very popular in your country, but I don't like his music.''

After decades in isolation, North Korea walks a tightrope by tentatively seeking economic and other ties with the outside but without jarring its regimented way of life.

In a new gesture of openness this month, the Communist leaders cracked their door further ajar and allowed thousands of foreign tourists in for a sports festival, the largest such influx since 1989. With the economy reportedly near collapse, Pyongyang is trying to advance rescue plans made by former President Kim and lure tourists with their dollars, investors with their capital, and businessmen with their technology.

''There are very favorable and positive conditions in which to invest in our country,'' says Kim Mun Song, a government official.

''The door is open to any country. We're providing conditions ... to invest,'' says Mr. Kim off the External Economic and Promotion Committee.

''North Korea is 15 years behind China. But the potential is there because there are more resources and infrastructure that are 10 years newer than China's,'' says a visiting economist.

At the same time, as many tourists discovered, the rigidly Marxist country remains a closely choreographed nation determined to open up on its own terms.

As visitors were shepherded around this impressive city of towering monuments, shaded roads, and secluded parks, residents marched through their gray, daily routine in business suits required during the festival. Hotel guests were awakened early by brigades of street sweepers whisking down this model city built from the ashes of the Korean War and already the cleanest, most empty, and most soulless hub in urban Asia.

Thousands of goose-stepping North Korean gymnasts performed at a mass rally in one of Pyongyang's several stadiums, chanting the praises of Kim Jong Il, the son and successor of the ''Great Leader.'' In the background, a placard section heralded the North's fertile fields and booming factories, myths central to the older Kim's continuing influence.

''During his life, the Great Leader put main stress on the automation of our country,'' says Li Un Chut, an engineer studying at the national library known as the Grand People's Study House. ''Now, under the guidance of our party, this automation is rapidly developed.''

In contrast, Western analysts depict the highly secretive North as a bleak society with little food, frequent power shortages, decayed industry, and little to show for its continuing socialist commitment.

At the Chang San Cooperative Farm southwest of the capital, a 1,000-acre showcase that is part of the North's troubled collective agriculture, rice and corn production continue to be heavily subsidized. Farmers there are paid prices almost 10 times higher than in urban food markets.

''We don't worry about food and housing because the state provides it,'' says Kim Huie Rin, a spokesman for the 5,000-member collective.

This tenacious remnant of the fading cold war also remains under the shadow of its disputed border with South Korea and the recently revived tensions over a stalled and contentious nuclear accord it signed with the United States last October. The accord would freeze the North's present nuclear program, which the West suspects is being used to develop nuclear weapons.

Yet at Panmunjom, the border village that sits astride the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, the atmosphere is intentionally low-key. In contrast to the written accounts of Korean hostilities, the presentation by the North's military guides is relatively ungarnished.

Indeed, the lives and lifestyles of some urban North Koreans are changing, they insist. Bicycles, long barred along with most types of transportation except for buses and officials' cars, are becoming fashionable and appearing increasingly in the countryside. There are some hints of a stealthy underground economy taking shape as cheap items are smuggled and brought in from China.

Young guides no longer shy from showing Western influence, which analysts say has been on the rise since Pyongyang sponsored the International Youth Festival in 1989. That year, many North Korean youths heard Western popular music for the first time and can now proudly offer renditions of songs such as ''My Way'' and the Simon and Garfunkel hit ''El Condor Pasa.''

One translator explains why he is unable to save much of his $70-a-month salary. ''I'm an extravagant man ... so I don't have much money left,'' he boasts.

Although Western economists speculate that the North's economy continues to contract and only about one-third of industrial capacity is in operation, government officials project a new economic zone under construction will become ''a little Singapore.''

Foreign analysts say Pyongyang will have to be more open about its economy and release carefully guarded statistics before investors will consider the North. ''There is nothing that is not transparent,'' retorts Kim, the government's economic official.

Some statistics are not released because of political and military tensions with the South, he says, although ''that does not mean that they don't exist or that we are hiding them.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A Peek Into Secretive N. Korea
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today