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Monday, September 7, 1998 Published at 15:57 GMT 16:57 UK

Land of illusions

By the BBC's Angie Knox

One business consultant I know begins his presentation on investing in the Korean Peninsula with an account of South Korea's impressive economic growth and development since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

He then flashes up on the screen a cityscape of gleaming white tower blocks dotted with green leafy parks. "That," he announces, "is Pyongyang, the North Korean capital."

There's usually a gasp of surprise from his audience. North Korea, for most people, conjures up images of Cold War communism -- a grey, cheerless country inhabited by a downtrodden people, ruled with an iron grip by a fanatical autocrat, and -- more chillingly -- home to the world's fifth largest army poised to overrun the free world.

More recently, that view has been overlaid with images of skeletal starving children, eyes filled with hopelessness, as a third year of food shortages holds the country in the grip of famine.

Grand visions

[ image: Statue to the 'Great Leader']
Statue to the 'Great Leader'
In fact, North Korea offers the visitor a number of realities. A tour of the capital's monuments reveals a preoccupation with scale and grandeur.

The Juche Tower -- dedicated to North Korea's own brand of self-sufficiency --gives a panoramic view of the entire of Pyongyang, a massive square named after the former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung contains an enormous statue of the Great Leader, as he is still known.

Outside Pyongyang, a huge concrete palace houses all the gifts ever presented to Kim Il-sung, and to his son Kim Jong-il, who now rules North Korea.

Yet shortages of energy and raw materials mean North Korea's factories run intermittently. Construction sites lie abandoned; in Pyongyang's showpiece maternity hospital, the expensive imported incubators are not even plugged in.

The windows of the department stores and groceries are piled high with inviting displays of colour-coordinated boxes and jars. But they're all empty, and inside the shops there's almost nothing to buy.

On the top floor of Pyongyang's No 1 Department Store there are stuffed and mounted eagles or bears for sale. But downstairs, it's virtually impossible to buy even a pair of chopsticks.

Capital for the elite

In Pyongyang, there's little sign of poverty. People are neatly but simply dressed, the children look well-fed. But a system of strict controls on people's movements allows the authorities to create -- and sustain -- an enclave of urban elite in the capital.

There are checkpoints on roads into Pyongyang; the starving don't make it into the capital.

On the road to ....

A six-lane highway runs south from Pyongyang to the city of Kaesong, near the heavily-guarded border with South Korea. Massive tunnels have been blasted through the hills. Yet there's almost no traffic on the road, and it's a real test of the driver's skill to avoid the huge holes in the concrete surface.

It's hard to see any justification for a road on such a grand scale for a country where travel is strictly regulated.

Then you remember that from Kaesong, the South Korean capital Seoul is just seventy kilometres -- or a short tank ride -- away.

[ image: Taking a peek ... from across the border in the South]
Taking a peek ... from across the border in the South
It feels like a world away. On the North Korean side of the border demarcation line lies the Kumgang or Diamond Mountains, famed throughout Korean history for their beauty.

But while South Korea's mountain beauty spots are packed with sightseers and souvenir shops, the mountains north of the border are virtually deserted. A group of women textile workers on a special factory excursion are thrilled to see foreigners, and we take group photographs of each other.

In a lonely pavilion on the mountain path, an elderly man courteously asks me to waltz with him to the accompaniment of Edelweiss sung by his companion.

Further west, where the mountains meet the sea, you can gaze out across the ocean from an unspoiled coastline. If it wasn't for the barbed wire and minefields, you might think you were in one of Asia's premier tourist destinations.

maintaining illusions

But even here there's no escape from the relentless glorification of North Korea's leaders.

Teams of stonemasons work from precarious platforms hanging over steep rockfaces, chipping out the giant-sized words of slogans and poems praising the achievements of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

In the cities, they appear on massive billboards, their portraits are in every office, even every hotel room. The two men have even had flowers named after them: the Kim Il-sungia orchid and the Kim Jong-ilia peony.

Yet for all the achievements of its leaders, North Korea is slowly sinking under the weight of its sclerotic centrally-planned economy that can't deliver materials, goods or even now food to its people.

Efforts to attract foreign investment have had limited success -- despite my consultant friend's presentations.

[ image: 50 years on famine stalks the countryside]
50 years on famine stalks the countryside
But the need to maintain the illusion of power and prosperity remains all important for North Korea. While the government continues to appeal for aid for famine victims - it's thought as many as two million people may have died from food shortages - Pyongyang's citizens have been hard at work rehearsing mass displays to mark the country's 50th anniversary.

That anniversary, claims North Korea's official media, will mark the beginning of a new millenium in which North Korean style socialism will triumph throughout the world.

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In this section

Inside the Secret State

Land of illusions

Profile: Kim Jong-il

North Korea: a political history

Analysis: Korean missiles threaten region

Setting store by military might

Where famine stalks the land

South Korea's DJ brings sunshine to the North