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Friday, 4 October, 2002, 00:25 GMT 01:25 UK
North Korea's mixed messages
North Korean soldiers are silhouetted as they participate in a massive military parade in Pyongyang
Amid hints of change, the army still dominates

North Korean television has a nightly ritual - broadcasting legions of stony-faced soldiers saluting the country's leader, Kim Jong-il.

It is the martial imagery of a militarist state.

Giant squads of troops parade, goose-stepping in perfect time through the centre of the capital, Pyongyang, bayonets fixed to their Kalashnikovs.


We've never done anything wrong against any other country

North Korean shopkeeper
Television sets are tuned to a single channel. In the world's most secretive and isolated nation, propaganda is everywhere.

It reinforces the personality cult of North Korea's ruling dynasty, Kim Il-sung - who founded the state in 1948 - and his son, Kim Jong-il.

The US is depicted as the regime's bogeyman.

In the gymnasium at the Pyongyang Number One Secondary School, boys are doing physical drills. On a wall is a painting from the Korean War. It shows children leading a captured American pilot, his hands bound with rope.

Elsewhere, a mural shows two missiles shattering the dome of the US Capitol building, home of the US Congress. Above it is the slogan: "Smash the USA".

Diplomatic moves

A woman in Pyongyang tells me that Americans are hard-headed towards North Koreans. "That is why we're even harder dealing with them," she says.

North Korean poster depicting missile attack on the US Capitol
Posters show missile attacks on the US Capitol
Washington has made it clear it considers North Korea a similar threat to Iraq. It too has a massive military machine, along with programmes allegedly developing nuclear energy and missiles.

In the Great Study Hall of the People, a vast marble edifice that dominates one side of Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung Square, 30 students are being indoctrinated by rote.

The two Kims watch from portraits on the wall. Their ideology of Juche, an extreme Communist system stressing self-reliance, has taught that North Korea can exist without the help of the outside world.

But Kim Jong-il is worried he might be next after Iraq in Washington's sights.

Under pressure, he is making concessions. He has said international inspectors can check he is not building nuclear weapons. He is mending ties with his neighbours, Japan and South Korea. He has also signed UN conventions against terrorism.

Now the US Assistant Secretary of State, James Kelly, is visiting for talks.

"North Korea should not be a part of the 'axis of evil'", one shopkeeper says, referring to a speech by US President George W Bush which condemned North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq.

"We've never done anything wrong against any other country."

Opportunity

North Korea is being forced to change because its hard-line Communist system, in which the state has tried to provide everything for its people, has been a failure.

Children perform songs and dances in front of a poster of the late, Kim Il-Sung (AFP)
Kim Il-Sung is revered in North Korea
In July it took its first steps towards a market economy, ending free state provision of food, housing and electricity. It is trying to encourage foreign investment and last week announced that one region would be run as a capitalist experiment.

"I think it comes out of necessity - that they see they need to be part of the international community, that nobody can live so totally isolated," says Kathie Zellweger from the Catholic aid agency Caritas.

"Engagement is the key to change. It is important that North Korea engages and we also engage North Korea because only together we can move forward."

While US attention is focused on Iraq, North Korea has a window of opportunity. It must persuade Washington it is serious about changing its ways or risk being the next regime the US targets.

It is trying. But then again, North Korean television is still putting out its nightly dose of parades and propaganda.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Damian Grammaticas
"North Korea has had the life sucked out of it"

Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

TALKING POINT
See also:

03 Oct 02 | Asia-Pacific
02 Oct 02 | Asia-Pacific
30 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
23 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
17 Sep 02 | Asia-Pacific
09 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
09 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
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