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N Korea defies critics as it turns 60

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

North Koreans march with the national flag in Pyongyang (13 August 2008)
North Korea remains the world's most secretive communist state

If North Korea has just one thing to celebrate upon reaching its 60th birthday, then perhaps it is survival itself.

For decades it has defied the many outside observers who predicted its imminent collapse.

Other communist countries have been bent or broken by the tide of history.

China and Vietnam have embraced market forces and opened up to the outside world and Cuba seems to be inching towards the possibility of more reform.

But North Korea remains, steadfastly, the world's most secretive communist state.

It is also, by almost any objective account, an economic disaster.

So, as it mobilises what is said to be its largest-ever gathering of troops and military hardware for the 60th anniversary parade, how has it survived so long?

Today, the gap between the two halves of the divided Korean peninsula is all too plain to see.

The South is a vibrant democracy with a prosperous, powerhouse economy, pumping out hi-tech cars and televisions to every corner of the globe.

The North is a one-party state with an agricultural system stuck in the 19th Century that cannot feed its own hungry people.

Economic decay

But it was not always this way.

A North Korean soldiers watches the South Korean border through binoculars (file image)
North Korea is widely recognised as a serious violator of human rights
The two modern-day Koreas came into being following the defeat of the Japanese colonial occupiers by allied forces in World War II.

The peninsula was split, with the Soviets controlling the north and the United States controlling the south.

The pattern was set for the creation, a few years later, of the two ideologically opposed Korean nations.

And for the next 20 years the two countries looked very much like equal adversaries.

The balance of Cold War power saw North and South fight to a stalemate in the Korean war, backed as they were by Chinese and US troops respectively.

Gross National Product per capita was higher in the North than the South well into the mid-1970s according to some estimates, and in 1984 North Korea actually sent food aid to the South.

But like other Soviet-style command economies, the seeds of North Korea's economic decay had already been sown.

The danger of possible US invasion of North Korea, real or exaggerated, has tended to rally the North Korean people around the regime
Paik Nak-chung
Seoul National University
South Korea embraced democracy, dumped its military rulers, and went into capitalist overdrive.

North Korea by the early 1990s, with the loss of Soviet support, was heading for a famine that would claim up to a million lives.

Paik Nak-chung is an honorary professor at Seoul National University.

His view as to why North Korea has not gone the same way as its Cold War backers is not uncommon on the left of South Korean politics.

The continued US military presence in South Korea, he says, has not so much undermined the regime in the North as strengthened it.

"The division of the peninsula has much to do with the lack of change," Mr Paik tells me.

"The danger of possible US invasion of North Korea, real or exaggerated, has tended to rally the North Korean people around the regime."

International concern

Certainly the North Korean masses are used to constant reminders that their existence is under threat from a hostile outside world.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (file photo)
Leader Kim Jong-il retains a stranglehold on power in North Korea
On the eve of the 60th anniversary celebrations comes a classic example.

"Should the enemies dare to ignite a war," the communist state cabinet said, "we will mercilessly punish the invaders, mobilising all potential build up in the midst of the rainstorm of military-oriented revolution and achieve a final victory in an anti-US war."

Professor Andrei Lankov, from Seoul's Kookmin University, has spent time living and studying in Pyongyang.

He has a different theory as to why North Korea has proven so resilient - it will not fall because the international community does not really want it to.

"The outside is terrified of collapse, so no-one is pushing North Korea hard enough," he says.

The very economic disparity that makes life so miserable for North Korea's citizens would also mean an economic crisis for North Korea's neighbours if the borders came down.

For the same reason, he believes, nobody inside the country will risk a challenge to the autocratic stranglehold on power exercised by its dynastic ruler, Kim Jong-il.

North Korea has managed to out-manoeuvre the world by keeping its entire population frozen with fear
Professor Andrei Lankov
Seoul's Kookmin University
"No-one dares," Mr Lankov says, "as the entire system would go down, taking with it reformers and conservatives alike."

South Korea would perhaps have the most to fear from the economic consequences.

The generous engagement, aid and trade offered Northwards by Seoul's previous liberal governments may have done much, some argue, to prop up Pyongyang.

Sixty years ago North Korea began life with a vision of land reform, improved agricultural yields and new freedom for its workers.

By 1949 it claimed to be the first Asian country to have eliminated illiteracy.

At the age of 60 it is widely recognised as a serious violator of human rights.

It runs labour camps, denies freedom of speech and travel, and it is reliant on foreign food aid, much of it from the United States.

But surely, after all this time, there must be something worth celebrating, I ask Mr Lankov.

"Probably not," he says.

"North Korea has managed to out-manoeuvre the world by keeping its entire population frozen with fear. Survival is not something we should admire such a country for."




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