North Korea's reality gap

The tour bus stops on a bridge amid fallow fields, and the North Korean guide points to a cluster of small factories nearly a mile away.

"That's the Kaesong industrial zone," says Choe Kyong Jin, an official in this historic city several miles north of the line between North and South Korea. "We cannot go in there, but you can see it from here."

Foreigners, he explains, "are banned" from the zone where five small South Korean factories are already making such products as pots and pans. These factories are the vanguard, the guide says, of a dozen South Korean companies that are committed to build here in what is seen as one of the most hopeful signs of North-South reconciliation.

If the zone symbolizes the future, however, the present reality - as seen by members of the Western diplomatic and aid community in the capital Pyongyang and some South Koreans who travel here - is altogether different. The economy, they say, shows no sign of improving as the government imposes ever more draconian steps to snuff out budding economic freedom.

A Western resident, requesting anonymity, cites a series of measures for reimposing tighter controls following attempts at reform. The growing economic clout of traders, says the Westerner, has frightened the political elite here, prompting the backlash.

Paradoxically, however, North Korea this month is inviting foreigners for visits of several days each, as well as droves of South Koreans who get to stay for one night after flying up from Seoul on special flights.

They're all on carefully orchestrated tours highlighted by an evening at the annual Arirang Festival, an extravaganza staged by 50,000 youth with flashcards on one side of Pyongyang's May First Stadium and another 15,000 dancers on the playing field.

By the time the show closes at the end of the month, 10,000 South Koreans will have made the trek in an exercise sanctioned by the South Korean government in pursuit of reconciliation with the North.

The festival offers an idealized image that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il hopes to inculcate not only among his own people but also among visitors from elsewhere. The 90-minute show moves from scenes of verdant fields filled with livestock and tractors, to power plants pumping out electricity, to waves of soldiers in battle dress marching in defense of the "socialist paradise."

At the show's climax, dancers form a map of Korea, flashcards suddenly spell out the words in Korean for "independence, peace, and friendship," doves soar above on tiny wires, and loudspeakers pump out music venerating Kim and his late father, "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung. The South Korean visitors respond to the unification scenes by madly waving paper flags showing a map of one united Korea in blue on a white field.

For all the hype, however, foreigners are startled by how little has changed visually.

"It's worse than it was in 1979," says Bradley Martin, who visited Pyongyang at that time as a reporter and has recently authored a book, "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader," detailing the regime's tortuous history. "At that time you had a lot of mechanization. They had rice planting machines and electrical tractors."

Now, says Mr. Martin, on the tour bus as it rolls down a nearly empty highway between hills stripped of growth by villagers desperate for fuel and food, the process of mechanization "has been reversed."

Martin marvels over the regime's success in shielding itself from protest from within. "Indoctrination here is the strongest the world has known," he says.

Now, say foreigners with embassies and aid groups here, Kim Jong Il is intensifying the pressure after replacing the head of internal security, one of the most powerful positions.

New measures include a crackdown on communications that began by outlawing cellphones. Next, telephone networks were cut so foreigners can only dial other foreigners - and have to get Koreans to dial Koreans. Then too, Koreans are banned from driving on Sundays and evenings to discourage socializing.

Here in Kaesong, the sight of a cluster of South Korean factories pales beside the mighty industry that dominates South Korea.

Guide Choe Kyong Jin points to empty land on the other side of a bridge. There, he says, will be "the tourist area," complete with hotels and a shopping center. So far, though, there is no sign of life. "Of course, North and South Korea have different systems," says Choe. But "we have a vision that South and North are one nation."

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