| Farmers scavenging for food outside Pyongyang. Picture by Jehangir Pocha
Pyongyang (North Korea), Nov. 29: The illusion of success this secretive nation’s leaders thrive on was on full display last month as the Workers Party celebrated the 60th anniversary of its ascent to power.
At the colossal May Day stadium, a cast of 100,000 acrobats, dancers, singers, soldiers, musicians and children who made giant designs using coloured cards enthralled audiences with an eerily precise extravaganza called Arirang.
As they performed a paean to Korean identity, Ryong Chol Li, one of three government escorts accompanying our group of four international journalists, seemed genuinely moved.
“It shows how our people are united around the Workers Party of Korea with one mind, single-hearted,” he said.
But the decay and poverty gripping North Korea could not be entirely stage-managed away.
Along the bumpy tar road to the Demilitarised Zone that separates North Korea from South Korea, peasants in ragged clothes combed recently reaped rice fields for leftover grains.
The legacy of the famine and series of natural disasters that collectively killed up to three million people between the mid- and the late-1990s is still alive here.
Gerald Bourke, an officer with the World Food Programme, said despite a good harvest and increasing food aid from China and South Korea, North Korea could still face a shortfall of a million tonnes of food this year.
But Pyongyang denies this and wants many of the 25-odd international NGOs it invited into the country during the famine of 1995 to leave by the year’s end.
That would be a disaster, said Bourke. “We feed about 6.5 million here (and) if WFP were not there to provide supplementary foods to children and pregnant and nursing women, it could be very serious.”
A foreign resident of Pyongyang said the government’s reason for this is that it does not like “hundreds of foreigners running around the country asking questions and monitoring government activities. It fears this will ‘contaminate’ the country and people.”
Since North Korea’s creation in 1945, founding ruler Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il have advanced a cult-like self-reliance ideology called juche or Kim Il Sung-ism. So fixated is juche on the idea of self-sufficiency that it has its own calendar, which uses 1912, the year Kim Il Sung was born, as its base year.
During the tour, Jiang pointed to groups of schoolchildren and office workers from the city who had been drafted by the government to work alongside local farmers in the fields for up to two weeks during the harvesting season.
“This is how we work ' as a single society, single unit with everyone dedicated to the national cause,” he said.
But later, Jiang and the other minders confessed that North Korea is indeed facing hard times ' even if they were quick to translate this into a defence of Pyongyang’s desire to produce nuclear energy, a quest that has put the regime at odds with the United States.
“We have no power, so nothing can run. And that’s why we need the light water reactors,” said Jiang, referring to North Korea’s demand that it receive civilian nuclear technology in exchange for its recent pledge to surrender its military nuclear programme.
Yet instead of embracing economic reforms as China did, Kim Jong Il is holding fast to the juche approach while also fanning fears of an imminent invasion by the US. This mentality has turned North Korea into an economic basket case and its annual per capita income is $1700, a quarter of China’s.
Part of the problem is North Korea’s “army first” policy, which directs the bulk of the nation’s intellectual, economic and social capital to its military.
At the Demilitarised Zone, the North Korean soldiers overlooking the Americans’ glass and steel building complex opposite looked sharp in their khaki uniforms and mushroom peak-caps. But the village homes just yards away wore a ragged look, and children there exhibited the stunted growth and gauntness consistent with chronic malnutrition.
Still, many North Koreans believe fervently in their system.
“I come here regularly to study the works of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung,” said Kim Myong Chol, 47, a construction worker spending his morning reading the late leader’s writings under his portrait in the National Library in Pyongyang.
Later that afternoon, the journalists learned that Kim Myong Chol had been so angry with the government escorts for allowing foreigners to speak with him that he had lodged a complaint with the authorities ' the repercussions of which could be serious for the minders.
Opening up, it seems, can be a dangerous business in North Korea.