Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Peek Inside the Hermit Kingdom

When former US President Bill Clinton made his secret trip to Pyongyang over a week ago, former European Union Member of Parliament Glyn Ford was also there.

He explained he was on his way to a museum when the roads were blocked off and a fleet of cars whizzed past.

"Who is that?" he asked his minders.

"A senior US official," was the reply.

An hour later he found out it was Clinton and the next day the state-run newspapers had headlines that exclaimed that a senior US official was there to meet with Kim Jong-il. The part about him securing the release of the two American journalists was considered a footnote. It was more important that Clinton met with Kim for three and a half hours and gave the apology North Korea so fondly likes to get from the US as Ford puts it.

Ford was an EU MP in the 1980s and tried very hard to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea. However even after tabling a resolution about it, nothing was achieved in the end. Nevertheless, that didn't stop Ford from traveling almost two dozen times to the Hermit Kingdom from 1997 and on this recent trip he brought Russian photographer Irina Kalashnikov to take pictures.

Her images were startling for most of us who have never been there. There were the usual nationalistic photos, with everyone wearing a pin of Kim Il-sung, the "Dear Leader" on their left chest, right by their hearts. But there were also pictures of ordinary people drinking liquor on trains, people frolicking on the beach, women wearing quasi-fashionable dresses and heels, and babies in maternity wards.

Ford remarked that 12 years ago wealth distribution was very egalitarian, but now especially in Pyongyang, there are people who can spend several years' worth of salary on a meal. You can get hamburgers and pizzas, along with stiletto heels, $60,000 gold watches and $450 Montblanc pens. He stressed that the capital is completely different from the rest of the country in terms of material goods and services.

In the past year, about 48,000 people now have mobile phones that use an Egyptian carrier. The number is expected to more than double to 100,000 in the next year. Ford also imagines the small percentage who have mobile phones probably have Internet access as well.

While people can afford to buy things (mostly from China), they are having to work hard for it.

Currently the government is pushing for people especially in heavy industries to work 18-hour days. The thought is that if they produce more coal there will be more electricity and steel.

However, people are already getting exhausted from this 100-day exercise and are using every moment they can to catch up on sleep.

When it comes to military power, Ford doesn't think North Korea has much capability, let alone nuclear. He says the debate there is that North Korea wants to be a strong and prosperous country, but there are two schools of thought -- one where resources should be funneled to the military and then the country will reach its goal; the other is to do more to simulate the economy and then use the profits to invest in a better military. The latter sounds familiar...

As for the Six-Party Talks, North Korea thinks they're over -- it is time for bilateral talks. Ford says nothing will go ahead until the US comes to the table.

He didn't have much information on succession, other than that there are family tensions between the older generation of Kim's brother-in-law and half-brother versus the younger generation of Kim's youngest son. If the regime does collapse, Ford predicts it would be a "human catastrophe" and a shotgun wedding with the South would not be good either.

We will all be watching and waiting to see what happens in the Hermit Kingdom and hope it is for the best, not the worst.

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