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Thursday, 3 May, 2001, 23:42 GMT 00:42 UK
North Korea slow to change
North Korean soldier passes billboard
Any vacant space is filled with billboards
By Angus Roxburgh in Pyongyang

The subway stations in Pyongyang are exceedingly deep.

They provide excellent protection against nuclear bombs and also a chance to enjoy all your favourite songs about North Korea's Great Leader, Kim Jong-il, as you travel to work.

Under the slightly-cracking facade, this remains a frightening totalitarian system, where nothing is quite what it seems

They blare from loudspeakers all the way down the interminable escalators.

The one I had the privilege of hearing was about how hard Chairman Kim works to ensure the North Koreans' blissful lives:

"At night when the city is dark and sleeping, the light in the Great Leader's window still burns... tra-la..."

Not many foreigners go to North Korea, far less travel on its subway.

Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-il is said to have awesome powers
The fact that I was able to, as a journalist accompanying the delegation of European Union leaders to Pyongyang this week, may even say something about subtle changes afoot in this hermit-like communist state.

Unlike a group that accompanied then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last October, our mobile phones were not confiscated, and our minders allowed us to venture out of the hotel. But the changes, I think, are only skin-deep.

Human traffic lights

Under the slightly-cracking facade, this remains a frightening totalitarian system, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Little Korean women in turquoise uniforms pirouette like manic clockwork dolls in the middle of road junctions

Pyongyang's streets are broad and empty, its lawns and bushes manicured, the pavements spotless.

Little Korean women in turquoise uniforms pirouette like manic clockwork dolls in the middle of road junctions, their lips painted and arms popping in and out, directing traffic that so rarely comes their way. Human traffic lights.

Revolutionary slogans adorn rooftops, and any vacant space has been filled with billboards, murals or monuments in honour of Kim Il-sung, the founder of communist North Korea, who died in 1994, and his son, Kim Jong-il, who now rules and has acquired his father's soubriquet of "Great Leader".

Jack of all trades

Chairman Kim is ascribed awesome powers.

Not only does he run the National Defence Commission and government, but he makes regular tours of factories to give "on-the-spot" instruction to workers and managers as to how to do their jobs better.

Juche monument in Pyongyang
Juche became the nation's driving philosophy
He gives similar pep talks to army officers, writes books such as Guidance for Journalists (which notes that the prime task of a journalist is to praise the Leader) and On the Art of Cinematography, and even pens the occasional opera (six in two years, in fact).

A writer in a collection of eulogies I bought describes Kim's ability to work "in a three-dimensional manner".

He once witnessed him writing some document, speaking on the phone, and reviewing a song - all simultaneously!

Not surprisingly, the people have taken to recognising these prodigious gifts by, for example, naming flowers after him - "Kimsongilia", a sprig of which can attractively set off a bouquet of Kimilsungia.

Master of one's destiny

His father once had a big idea, known as "Juche", or "self-reliance", which became the nation's driving philosophy.

At a large, towering monument to Juche in Pyongyang, a guide in a bright yellow kimono told us the obelisk consisted of 70 tiers, because Kim Il-sung was 70 when it was erected, and of 25,550 pieces of granite, because that was how many days he had lived.

Father carries young daughter
A true daughter of Kim Jong-il
"Juche," she explained, "means that man is the master of his own destiny."

She then pointed out statues of a worker, teacher and artist, who were, she said examples of "juche work, juche education and juche art". I haven't the faintest idea what she meant.

The children of Senior-Middle School Number One in Moran district will have no such trouble, for their entire lives will be imbued with the idea.

Perfect school

A slogan above the entrance declares: "Let us become the true sons and daughters of respected father and general Kim Jong-il."

Everything in the school is perfect. In one class, girls embroider beautiful silk pictures, every stitch a masterstroke.

In the gym, boys play ping-pong like demons, the ball flying back and forth between their bats as though guided by lasers.

In a language class, sitting in neat rows with their red neckerchiefs on, they parrot English phrases in unison.

A poster outside the language class says: "Foreign language is a weapon for life and struggle."

The result of such schooling will be a generation of children who know their maths tables, speak stilted English perfectly, understand the basics of science and literature, but above all, believe unswervingly in the greatness of Kim Il-sung and his son on Earth, Kim Jong-il.

For that, it seems, is the whole purpose of life in North Korea.

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See also:

03 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
N Korea 'maintains missile test ban'
24 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
N Korea's dramatic turnaround
24 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
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03 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
'Kim Jong-il son' detained in Japan
03 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: North Korea reaches out
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