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Last Updated: Monday, 23 April 2007, 06:28 GMT 07:28 UK
N Korea: Your questions answered
The BBC's Seoul correspondent Charles Scanlon has recently returned from a visit to North Korea.

Here he answers some of the questions you asked about his trip.


How do North Koreans feel about their leader? I wonder if they have access to information about the outside world, especially the West?
Ankur Gadi, Tokyo

It's impossible to detect anything but reverence and awe for the leader and his father.

I was told more than once that they are one and the same - the founder Kim Il-Sung seems to have morphed into his son Kim Jong-il in the popular mind.

Kim Jong-il is portrayed as a caring, nurturing figure who looks after the needs of his people.

North Koreans can appear urbane, witty and self aware - but everything changes when they talk about the leadership. The reverence appears to be sincere.

Mass games
Charles Scanlon: I saw no hint of any rebellious sentiment
The people seem much more aware of the outside world than they were 12 years ago, when I first visited the country. They know that South Korea is much richer and they know about economic development in China.

Behind the rhetoric and fear, it's possible to detect a grudging respect for the United States. One military officer asked me what had to be done to improve relations with the US.

As for Britain - an immigration officer spontaneously shook my hand on a trip last year when he saw my British passport. Could he have been a Manchester United fan? Or perhaps an admirer of Tony Blair's leadership style? Like everything in North Korea, it's hard to know.

What keeps the regime going? Is it fear, brainwashing or nationalism? Are things changing? Is China influencing events - or showing North Koreans that there is another way?
Joe Gill, Brighton, UK

All of the above I would think. It's impossible to overstate the importance of nationalism. North Koreans are brought up to believe that they are uniquely virtuous - that the outside world is malevolent and potentially aggressive.

The regime plays on the sense of national victimhood. Korea was colonised by Japan and the North was virtually obliterated by American bombing during the Korean War.

Citizens are taught that Kim Il-Sung gave the country back its pride and independence.

The Americans are blamed for all misfortunes; the division of the peninsula, economic hardship and continuing military tension.

China is trying to tempt the leadership with visions of economic reform. Kim Jong-il makes the occasional trip to China, but there's no sign of a conversion to a market economy.

Were you able to see a loosening of tight government controls on the economy through small, privately owned businesses? Is the government allowing such businesses to exist, or is it merely a farce?
Richard Polonia, St Charles, US

My government-appointed minders did everything they could to keep me away from the free markets. But I did see much more commercial activity than I saw a decade ago.

There are small shops and stalls and more restaurants. Foreign residents say the markets are packed with consumer goods from China.

The government avoids the word "reform" and doesn't seem proud of market activity
There's a new class of people with access to foreign currency, who are clearly prospering. There are more private cars on the road, and many more bicycles - especially outside the capital.

Resident foreigners say rice is being sold in the markets again, despite a ban imposed two years ago. One even saw South Korean videotapes being sold.

The markets have been officially sanctioned since 2002. It seems to have been the government bowing to reality, rather than a conscious attempt at economic reform.

The government avoids the word "reform" and doesn't seem proud of market activity.

Did you have an opportunity to meet or even see regular people in the street? If so, did they seem unhappy, discontent or aware that their society may be slightly different to the outside world?
Simon, Seoul, South Korea

On this trip I was not able to speak to ordinary people on the street. The minders tried to prevent it and people shied away. Only officially sanctioned guides and some military officers would speak for the camera.

People higher up in the social hierarchy were quite happy to chat and were relaxed and informal. They did not want to speak into microphones however.

When I told them that anyone could travel freely in foreign countries, they thought I was having a joke at their expense
The capital was in holiday mood during my visit. Hundreds of people were being marshalled through the streets in organised groups. But there were also small family groups, who looked pretty cheerful.

I came across a large group of teenagers who'd just performed in the Arirang festival, a mass games spectacular of synchronised gymnastics. They were animated and friendly and seemed to have had a great time.

Despite being under the rule of such a suppressive and dictatorial government, could you sense any rebellious or critical sentiments in the North Korean people? Eric Chow, Ulsan, South Korea

I saw no hint of any rebellious sentiment. It's hard to conceive of even mild opposition in such an environment. In countries like Cuba and Burma, it's possible to meet dissidents and talk to people who want change.

That's out of the question in North Korea. Opposition would be akin to heresy in medieval Europe - highly dangerous and deeply shocking to most people. There is a very strong religious element to the leadership cult.

A defector in South Korea once told me he turned against the regime because of the food shortages and wanted to find people who agreed with him. He said it took about a year of cautious signals and gentle probing before he dared speak openly - even with close friends.

I have lived in South Korea for two years. There is a strong mood of reconciliation between South and North Korea. Is that something you have picked up in North Korea as well?
Tim Murray, London, UK

The official line is that the two Koreas are one and South Koreans yearn for unification. It's the Americans who are blocking it - that's why they must withdraw their troops from the South and go home.

Mass games
Charles Scanlon was on an official visit for the Arirang Festival
People in the North believe unification would solve all their problems - especially the hardship of daily life.

But people still appear slightly ambivalent about South Korea - as if they're not sure whether the official line could quickly switch back to hostility.

Our minders showed only wary, polite interest in photographs of life in Seoul. They were proud that Samsung mobile phones were made by Koreans, but not at all sure whether they liked Samsung itself.

They were also not quite sure what they thought of Manchester United's South Korean footballer, Park Ji-sung - a huge national star in the South.

I would be very interested to learn what the population in North Korea knows about the outside world and how global events are reported through the media. Do the people know that other countries are much more open and how do they feel about this?
Gary Webster, Eastbourne, UK

There is no need to censor the media - the media is a fully integrated arm of government. Its job is to rally support for the leadership and lambaste enemies. Limited foreign stories do appear in the paper - but they're often days late.

My minders were very surprised to hear that foreigners could travel freely in other countries. They assumed that state guides were a universal concept.

When I told them that anyone could fly into Seoul, hire a car and go where they liked, they were incredulous. I think they thought I was having a joke at their expense.

I visited the country in 1997. I felt that I had to rush there before the country disappears. Ten years later, it is still around. What does Mr Scanlon see for the future?
Rector Lyn Truder, Lagos, Nigeria

Sadly my analysis is as useless as everyone else's. There just isn't enough access to the inner workings of the leadership.

The specialists practice an arcane version of kremlinology. How many times has the Great General visited army camps this month? Who was standing next to him at that reception at the Chinese embassy? Why has he not made an appearance for 43 days?

The talk in the foreign community suggests that military hardliners retain their influence and that economic reformers are not making much headway.

Long time survival will depend on the goodwill of neighbours like China and South Korea, and the outcome of the nuclear chess game with the United States.

There are far too many variables to make a meaningful call on regime survival.




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