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Update No: 084 - (25/04/10)

North Korea: An air of unreality
On the surface, April in North Korea proceeded as it always does. In a fast-changing world there is something almost reassuring about Pyongyang’s predictable rituals, which in April are two. The main event is Sun’s Day, April 15: the birthday in 1912 of the founding Great Leader, the late Kim Il-sung; still ‘eternal President’ of the DPRK- although he died in 1994.

No foreign artistes this year
As usual this auspicious season was marked by an arts festival. Yet this year saw a change. For the past quarter century Pyongyang’s theatres have hosted an April Spring Friendship Art Festival (ASFAF), featuring a variety of foreign performers. In 2009 the delights of the 26th ASFAF, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), included the Cossack State Dance Company of Russia, the Beijing Opera Theatre from Jilin province, “a female trio of ‘Appasionante’ of Italy,” the Krakatau musical troupe of Indonesia, Sweden’s Ludvika Circus, Mongolian acrobats, and other performers from Bulgaria, Belarus, Poland, Cuba, Uzbekistan, France, Vietnam, Netherlands, Portugal, Moldova, Spain, Ukraine, and even the UK and US. Needless to say, all these “in their colourful numbers represented with high artistry the unbounded reverence for President Kim Il Sung and the firm faith and will of progressive mankind to hold in high esteem and follow General Secretary Kim Jong Il.”

Not this year. KCNA has carried no mention of any 27th ASFAF, and “progressive mankind” was conspicuous by its absence. Instead, Pyongyang and other cities hosted the Second April Spring People's Art Festival (ASPAF): a purely home-grown affair. The first ASPAF was in 2008, when again there was no ASFAF. It is unclear what the change signifies. Maybe North Korea has run out of money or friends or both; or perhaps ASFAF and ASPAF will alternate in future. Another innovation is that ASPAF took to the streets, with performances “full of optimism and joy” on April 16 and 17 at various open-air as well as indoor venues. These included the plazas in front of the Arch of Triumph (theirs is just that little bit bigger than the one in Paris), the Party Founding Memorial Tower, and the Pyongyang Grand Theatre.

Fare included female solo “We Always Remember All Sorts of Hardships Undergone by the Leader”, male quintet; “Thunder over Jong Il Peak”, mixed duet; “Mt. Jongbang Is Famous Mountain of Love”, female folk solo; “When Advancing under His Guidance,” and much more in the same vein. (As KCNA rightly said, in a doubtless unconscious double entendre: “The performances go on.”) Needless to add, everyone “enthusiastically sang of the glorious revolutionary career and immortal exploits of President Kim Il Sung whom the Korean nation acclaimed and held in high esteem for the first time in its history, spanning thousands of years, and successfully represented the faith and will to open a new history of prosperity in the socialist homeland under the Songun [military-first] leadership of Kim Jong Il.” Anyone lucky enough to be out in the western suburbs near the Great Leader’s birthplace probably had more fun: “in the Mangyongdae Fun Fair acrobats of the Pyongyang Circus and local art organizations staged such numbers as physical stunt, comic acrobatics and juggleries.”

As for performers: besides the cream of the national crop such as the Mansudae Art Troupe, others included the art groups of the February 8 Vinalon Complex, Hungnam Fertilizer Complex, Nyongbyon Silk Mill, Pyongyang Underground Shop, Phyonghwa and Wonha cooperative farms, Haphung coal mine and many more. In straitened times, when enterprises must now add paying their own way to the long list of tunes they dance to from Pyongyang – a new twist on juche that would alarm the Great Leader, but emphatically not free markets – one wonders how they can still afford all these song and dance troupes. Who pays for them?

Parliament meets, just for a day
No answers were forthcoming from theatre of a different kind, held a week earlier in another of North Korea’s regular spring rituals. April 9 saw the second session of the 12th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), held as ever in the ornate Mansudae Assembly Hall – which even resembles a theatre auditorium. Unlike the opposing green benches of the British House of Commons, or the horseshoe-shaped chambers found elsewhere, in Pyongyang all the seats (plushly upholstered individual armchairs) face forward down a gentle slope towards a large white statue of Guess Who, which broods over the platform party. Each seat also has its own microphone (courtesy of Siemens), for saying Yes on the rare occasions when required to.

This parody of a parliament meets for just one day each year. That is deemed sufficient to hear a report on the economy, pass the budget – no numbers, which speeds things up – and deal with any legislation or personnel matters. Small wonder that Kim Jong-il, as this year, often does not bother to attend. He did so in 2009, when unusually a full list of ministers was published as well as the membership of the enlarged National Defence Commission (NDC): a body chaired by the Dear Leader which outranks the merely civilian Cabinet.

This year’s SPA session by contrast gave little away, dashing any hopes of greater glasnost. A single sentence in KCNA announced a constitutional revision, but said absolutely nothing about its content. Some in Seoul speculated that this might concern the opaque and snail’s-pace succession of Kim’s third son Kim Jong-eun; we may learn more in due course.

Banned from Europe
There were two personnel changes. The SPA has a Presidium to handle business when the full Assembly is not sitting (ie nearly all the time). Its former secretary-general, Choe Yong-rim, last August became chief secretary of the Pyongyang City Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), or in effect the capital’s mayor. He is succeeded in his parliamentary post by Pyon Yong-rip, a former president of the State Academy of Sciences. (In fact Pyon already took this new post late last year.) His schedule will not include any trips to Europe, as he is one of eleven named top DPRK officials subject to an EU travel ban under Council Regulation No 1283/2009 of 22 December 2009; this describes him as “involved in WMD-related biological research”. The full document detailing EU sanctions against North Korea is at http://eur-lex.europa.eu

The EU document gives Pyon’s date of birth as 20 September 1929. His predecessor Choe Yong-rim has the same birth year. Kim Yong-nam – the DPRK’s titular head of state as president of the SPA presidium, whose latest trip to Africa was described in last month’s NewNations update – was born in 1926. As this trio suggests, North Korea is increasingly a quasi-Confucian gerontocracy run by octogenarians; at 69 (officially 68), Kim Jong-il is a mere stripling. If fresh young blood is not injected soon, they will all gradually die off.

The other change is that Jang Pyong-gyu was appointed as director of the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office (SPPO). Jang is a new name, and so is his organisation, hitherto called the Central Public Prosecutors Office (CPPO); unless the SPPO is a new body above the CPPO, which seems unlikely. So it is unclear if Jang has replaced Ri Kil-song, who was appointed Prosecutor-General in 2003; his title was changed to Director last year. There is speculation that these changes are linked to the Ministry of Public Security’s recently having become answerable to the NDC; it was formerly under the Cabinet.

A budget with no hard numbers
Most of the SPA’s single day was nominally devoted to the economy. But here too data were minimal, and an air of unreality hung over proceedings even more than usual. The DPRK is adept at keeping up appearances, yet it can be no exception to the disconnect between public conformity and private doubt that characterized the milder communisms of eastern Europe before they crumbled. The more so, since the SPA is one of the few visible avenues of social mobility in North Korea; presumably the Party (WPK) and the Korean Peoples Army (KPA) function similarly. With a turnover of typically around half its 687-strong membership every four years – ‘elections’ are of course fixed in advance – this is one way an ageing and failing regime can co-opt the brightest and best of the younger generation and from the provinces.

What do they think, these by no means stupid cadres, as each year they must feign interest in budgets with no numbers and reports which describe only (vague) successes, never failures – when everyone present knows the economy has been in dire straits for twenty years? And at this of all times, what passed through their minds when neither premier Kim Yong-il nor the new finance minister Pak Su-gil – his predecessor Kim Wan-su, appointed at last year’s SPA session, lasted just five months – uttered a word about the real economic issue: December’s badly botched currency redenomination, which exacerbated inflation, caused riots, and reportedly led premier Kim to issue an unprecedented apology to local-level officials?

If anyone cares to read these vacuous speeches, with their few meaningless percentages, they can be found at http://www.kcna.co.jp (premier Kim) and http://www.kcna.co.jp (the budget). Kim claimed that “last year the indomitable mental power of all the people … and production potential were fully displayed and as a result the gross industrial output value markedly grew” from 2008. He did not quantify “markedly”, or anything else for that matter.

Stealing from Hyundai
While perusing KCNA, another rather meatier page whose tone and content deserve study is www.kcna.co.jp. In the real world, far from inbred paeans to leaders or the SPA’s empty formalities, North Korea is busy stealing from one of its main benefactors: Hyundai Asan, rump of a once mighty conglomerate now split into separate carmaking, shipbuilding, and other interests. Last month’s NewNations update described how Hyundai Asan and other South Korean investors were summoned in March for an ‘inspection’ of their assets, worth over US$300 million, at the Mount Kumgang resort in the southeastern DPRK, idle since July 2008 when the South suspended tours after the KPA killed a Southern tourist but refused Seoul’s demand for a joint investigation.

On April 8 the North’s General Guidance Bureau for the Development of Scenic Spots (sic) announced a four-point action plan. It will “freeze as the first phase” various facilities belonging to the South Korean state – including a hardly used new family reunion centre costing US$53 million – “and expel all their management personnel.” Four Korean-Chinese maintenance workers at the reunion centre duly left on April 14. Three Southern firms, including Hyundai Securities, “that dodged the survey” will lose their business rights and be denied entry. Tours to Mount Kumgang “will soon start through new business enterprise.” And for good measure, if South Korea does not change its stance, “we will reexamine the work in the Kaesong Industrial Zone [a separate joint venture, also much harassed by the North as described in many previous monthly Updates] in an all-round way.” South Korea naturally deplored this blatant confiscation. If as some predict, Chinese tour firms start using Mount Kumgang, that could embroil Seoul in an interesting row with Beijing.

Finger of suspicion
But South Korea has graver matters on its mind. The torn-off stern section of the ROK Navy corvette Cheonan, whose mysterious sinking NewNations reported last month, was raised on April 16 with its grim cargo of young corpses (many conscripts). A day later North Korea, in its first official comment, denied any involvement. But with investigators now positing an external explosion as the likely cause, the finger of suspicion is pointing ever more towards Pyongyang. With even Chung Mong-joon, the urbane billionaire (and Hyundai shipbuilding scion) who chairs the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) calling for military retaliation, the peninsula is entering an unpredictable phase. One must hope calm heads will prevail, but the view that the Korean crisis is always safely on the backburner looks about to be tested.

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