North Korean Propaganda Festival May Signal Shift in Policy

Bloomberg
Bradley Martin
5/10/2007

Since 2002, North Korea has invited visitors every few years to a festival featuring 60,000 dancers, gymnasts, acrobats and musicians, along with card-flippers who create vast pictorial mosaics covering one entire side of the 150,000-seat May Day stadium in the capital, Pyongyang.

The previous performance, in 2005, included noisy and bloody tableaux of North Korean soldiers making mincemeat of enemy soldiers. Last week’s Arirang production — named for a famous Korean love song — was different. Battlefield carnage was replaced with scenes of people seeking higher living standards by rebuilding factories and growing crops.

While North Korea is hardly going pacifist seven months after testing an atomic device, the propaganda shift may signal a significant change in policy, according to expatriate businessmen living in the isolated country. Now that it is a nuclear power, North Korea appears to be directing more resources to improving an economy on its knees after decades of sanctions and isolation, they say.

Korean officials “are now confident they can defend their country,” said Felix Abt, the Swiss president of PyongSu Pharma Joint Venture Co. Ltd., which recently started manufacturing painkillers and antibiotics in Pyongyang. “Their next priority is economic development.”

Consumer Goods

The policy emphasizes light industry to produce consumer goods. It was formally expressed in a joint editorial that was run at the beginning of the year in three major newspapers published by the regime, Abt said.

Getting verifiable information about policies in North Korea is still almost impossible, especially on tightly organized trips for foreigners in which government guides keep visitors on a short leash.

And if the propaganda on display during one of these visits last week can be believed, the government continues to conceive any new economic policy along the lines of a traditional, planned economy, focused on state-owned enterprises where workers are inspired to redouble their efforts and produce miracles of socialist endeavor.

The Arirang show made this abundantly clear. In an act called “Power and Prosperity,” the audience was urged to emulate “youth shock brigade” members and other working people in North Pyongan Province who recently completed Thaechon Youth Power Station No. 4 in spite of catastrophic shortages of food, energy and most other materials that became evident in the early- to-mid-1990s.

`The Power’

The performance illustrated that North Korea needn’t depend on foreign donations, said Kim Song Ho, 32, one of the tour guides assigned to foreign visitors this month. “Our country has the power to live by ourselves,” said Kim, who worked for the World Food Program’s Pyongyang office until the government reintroduced rice rationing in 2005 and told foreign-aid organizations it could manage mainly on its own.

In Thaechon, Kim said, “workers constructed a power station despite the bad situation without any help. Now the slogan is, `We will work like Thaechon Power Station workers.’ We renovated factories, built new factories and now the economy is booming more and more.”

Evidence of such economic change wasn’t included on the tour Kim was guiding. Kim said he would happily show such sites to the foreign visitor another time.

Different Conditions

The development schemes aren’t directly modeled on those of China or Vietnam, locals stressed. “The conditions of the Chinese and Koreans are different,” said Kim Hyon Chol, the 32- year-old chief guide of the tour group. “The biggest difference is that our country is not united.”

The regime has kept its propaganda options open on its military direction.

Billboards in the capital city showed a U.S. and a Japanese soldier both skewered on the same bayonet. And while there was no sequence in the Arirang show celebrating the country’s nuclear explosion or missile tests, a military parade on April 25 to which foreign residents were invited showed off a missile said to be capable of hitting U.S. bases on Guam.

At the Demilitarized Zone, which has divided North from South Korea since the Korean War armistice agreement was signed in 1953, Korean People’s Army Captain Han Myong Gil was asked whether North Korea is safer since its nuclear test. He replied that U.S. and South Korean forces had held huge military exercises even as diplomats talked of trying to bring peace to the Korean peninsula.

`Hostile Attitude’

“The saying goes in Korea, `If there are many clouds, it will soon rain,”’ the 28-year-old career officer said. “We can’t feel safe until the U.S. gives up its hostile attitude.”

Han eventually responded to a question about what he thought of his government’s spending money on a huge military apparatus – – North Korea’s troop strength is the world’s fourth largest — while people don’t have enough food.

“We receive fright and oppression from the U.S., so I cannot hide that our living standard is not high,” Han said. “We were on an arduous march for a long time. Now we are very proud because we defended socialism with the military-first policy. A strong country can defend itself, but the weak will be beaten down.”

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An affiliate of 38 North