In the Land of the Dear Leader

Patriotic gymnastics, daily study of Kim Jong Ilalongside the personality cult, North Korea shows growing pragmatism and foreign investment

This is the second in a two-part series. For Part One, see "A Rare Look Inside North Korea" (BusinessWeek, 10/1/07).

If the Oct. 2 summit between South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun and North Korea's Dear Leader Kim Jong Il might be a hopeful sign of pragmatism from the North Korean leadership, during the second day of my trip to Pyongyang I was able to witness the North's wacky ideology run amok. Morning featured a visit to the huge, copper-colored statue of Kim's father, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, backed by a massive 70-meter-long mosaic featuring Mt. Paekdu, the sacred mountain the state says was his birthplace. Solemn schoolchildren wearing red scarves quietly walked to the base of the statue to place wreaths of flowers and bow.

We also went to see the Grand People's Study House. The huge building, with its traditional sweeping roof, purportedly holds 30 million books, but entry is likely restricted to elite Koreans. At the Study House, we heard how Leader Worship is inculcated in all North Koreans from childhood. "We must study 45 minutes a day on our Great Leader, then 45 more on our Dear Leader," said our third guide, a pretty 20-year-old student taking a break from her English language studies at the elite Kim Il Sung University to help our tour.

That indoctrination starts at age 7 and continues right to university, where ideology classes switch to a full hour-and-a-half a day on the elder Kim, then alternate the following day with Kim the Younger. "It's not easy at all. There is lots of memorization, and we have exams every day," she said.

Patriotism on Display

That evening was Arirang, the mass demonstration of patriotic gymnastics held in the world's largest auditorium, and the putative reason for our visit to North Korea. As 100,000 performers unfurled flags and wheeled in unison, they created enormous shifting pictures of everything from soldiers fighting for the Korean motherland to hydroelectric projects surging with water to generate electricity.

But despite that eerie sight of tens of thousands of North Koreans perfectly choreographed in a display of massive patriotism, our young guide's comment to me as we departed hinted again at pragmatism. "I should start studying Chinese," she said with a laugh, as we watched hundreds of Chinese tourists pour out of the May First Stadium.

Day three, our last in North Korea, happened to fall on the national holiday of Chusok, a traditional festival to celebrate bumper crops (unlikely in a North Korea recently ravaged by floods) as well as to visit the tombs of one's ancestors. Pyongyang, for once, looked alive. Families walked through the parks, dressed, it seemed, in slightly more colorful holiday clothes, and children ran alongside the road laughing.

Then about one hour into our trip, disaster struck, or so it initially seemed. Our bus engine began to cough more than usual until finally our driver pulled over to discover a fast-draining, punctured fuel line. A second bus dispatched to ferry us the rest of the way to our mountain tourist destination then also broke down, just as we pulled up to the hotel sitting at the entrance to the Myohyang Mountain resort.

Economic Conditions

That meant the cancellation of our visit to the International Friendship Exhibition, home to tens of thousands of gifts given to the Great and Dear Leaders, including everything from automobiles to ashtrays. But while our frustrated guides arranged for a third vehicle to drive the two-hours-plus from the capital to pick us up, we grabbed a rare chance to wander unescorted.

Staying easily within a 3km radius to the hotel as arbitrarily demanded by our guides, we were able for once to mingle along the road with friendly locals (but unable to communicate as we spoke no Korean) as well as enjoy watching students play soccer in a scruffy schoolyard complete with a young portrait of Kim Il Sung watching over them. Simple enough certainly, but a great pleasure in light of the tightly controlled environment enforced around us for most of our time in North Korea.

So what were the answers to my pre-trip questions? First, the state of the economy. There are clear signs North Korea is past the worst of the food and fuel disasters that accompanied the recent summer floods. Pyongyang at night didn't lack for lights, even as our first guide, Mr. Kim, admitted that the full reservoirs of late had helped overcome earlier blackouts. And Mr. Park also admitted the rice ration—700 grams a day for adults and 400-500 a day for children—had been cut earlier in the summer, but had now been restored to original levels.

And although they did not let us into any of their several special economic zones that host South Korean investment, the growing presence of Chinese investors and tourists was obvious everywhere, from our hotel casino to the DMZ to the Arirang festival. All told, our security agent/guide said to me, there are some 10,000 Chinese doing business in everything from light industrial goods to mining in North Korea. Perhaps this growing outside investment, combined with the massive food and fuel aid they still receive, will eventually convince the North Koreans to abandon the fiction of their so-called Juche philosophy, or complete self-reliance.

A People Due for Disillusionment

And the North Korean people? Despite their sometimes robotic recitations proclaiming love for their leaders, they are, of course, real people, equally curious about the outside world as all of us were about their country. On the long bus ride back to Pyongyang, Mr. Park, the same security agent/guide, quizzed me about everything from Chinese economic reform to what "cost-driven" means to how Nike (NKE) had grown from a small investment into the world-beating company it is today.

And judging from China's experience, the North Korean people—who seem to believe in the greatness of their founding leader and son—will surely survive the inevitable disillusionment when that facade of benevolence and omnipotence begins to crack. Only a little over 30 years ago, Chinese students studied Mao Zedong thought every day and worshipped China's Great Helmsman as a near-god.

Indeed, my wife (who hails from Beijing) well remembers those ideology classes, and also recalls joining in a flag-waving welcoming ceremony at China's capital airport for North Korea's Great Leader in the 1970s. Now, in the flashy, roaring economy of China today, she has made a career editing women's fashion magazines, including Madame Figaro, Good Housekeeping, and Modern Bride.

Standing Up to the U.S.

So, as in China, sweeping change may someday transform North Korea. But even when the country begins to abandon its demagogic cult of leadership, either as a still-independent nation or one reunified with the South, I suspect the deep patriotism one hears today in the North (and indeed in South Korea, too) will still be around. Nor will the historical resentment toward Japan and, yes, the U.S. easily dissipate. After all, our two countries fought a war, a fact one is constantly reminded of while visiting. Labeling them as part of an "axis of evil" hasn't helped convince North Koreans that the U.S. means well toward them either.

"Frankly speaking, our country has been a poor one until now. That is from problems like flooding and from U.S. sanctions," said Park on our first evening in Pyongyang, while we sat in the Yanggakdo Hotel's revolving restaurant bar high above the city. "We have nuclear weapons, and that makes the Korean people very proud. We are a small country that has been divided into two parts by foreign countries. We need nuclear weapons to stand up to the U.S."

But by our departure, after three-plus days of suffering bumpy bus rides and much conversation together, those bellicose words had begun to soften. "It is true we have problems, but they are our problems. Not your country's to worry about," said Park, once again assembled with us in the hotel bar. But suddenly he turned to me with an excited look on his face: "Within two or three years, I say we will have embassies in each other's countries, what do you think?" It is possible, was my stumbling answer. "No! I'm sure we will," he declared with a sudden happy smile of certainty.

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