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North Korea: ten years later
Steve Herman, VOA

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TOKYO - Ten-years ago North Korea's founder and absolute ruler Kim Il Sung died.

By any objective assessment the people of North Korea are worse off than they were 10-years ago. There are severe shortages of food and medicine, energy and other raw materials. The infrastructure is crumbling.

Experts, diplomats, and analysts say the million-man military gets priority access to the few goods and services available.

The one thing that has remained constant is the cult of devotion to North Korean founder Kim Il Sung who died on July 8, 1994. Part of this has been the doing of his successor and son, Kim Jong Il, who has refused the title of president and had his father enshrined with the title Supreme Eternal Leader.

A frequent visitor to North Korea, tour organizer and filmmaker Nicholas Bonner, says the elder Kim's cult of personality remains intact. "One-hundred-percent," he says. "You are not going to be able to show me anyone who will not say that. But without question their belief is there."

North Korea is the only example in the communist world of hereditary succession. Experts say this has helped the younger Kim retain his grip on power during turbulent economic changes and the demise of the communist ideology globally.

But the rare Western visitor to the country detects less sympathy for the second-generation leader compared to his father, who is revered as a liberator and war hero. Britain's Warwick University Professor Hazel Smith is one of the few Westerners who has lived in North Korea. "Kim Jong Il had no residual legitimacy, as he was too young to be involved in either fighting the Japanese under the colonial period or the American and the U.N. forces in the Korean War," she says.

But the more than 22-million North Koreans, subjected to absolute state control of the media, hear no criticism of either father or son.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (AFP/Getty Images)

Instead, news reports tend to constantly and enthusiastically praise Kim Jong Il in super-human terms. He is nothing less than a hero and a wise man. And little information comes in from the outside world. North Korea severely limits visits from outsiders, especially foreign journalists.

With few concrete facts to go on, the rest of the world has an image of Mr. Kim as a little megalomaniac with a big obsession for gourmet food, Hollywood films, and beautiful women. But what all North Koreans must be acutely aware of is that during Kim Jong Il's 10 years of absolute power, the country has had big problems, both man-made and natural.

The economy began to suffer in 1992 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang's main trading partner. Then bad luck hit in the mid-1990s with severe flooding followed by drought, which led to famine and starvation.

Professor Smith says that after years of economic growth under the elder Mr. Kim, his son's rule has North Koreans barely surviving. "Under the Kim Il Sung period, the state had enough goods to be able to both give rewards and punishments," says Professsor Smith. "The individuals that survived the famine of mid-1990s soon learned that they had to look after themselves, otherwise they literally would not survive."

The result is that North Korea - founded on a strict policy of self-reliance - has in the past two years begun dabbling in very modest economic reform with farmers' markets and bartering being tolerated by officials. Prices have been allowed to increase and fledgling free economic zones have been built to attract foreign investment.

The only real foreign investor is South Korea - which has been entering joint ventures as part of a policy of engaging the nuclear-weapon-seeking North as a way to ease tensions.

But the market changes have not brought political liberalization. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Mr. Bonner says that when President Bush's administration named North Korea as part of an Axis of Evil, Kim Jong Il and the military-first doctrine seemed to become even more powerful.

"When Bush came in, everything went very hard line again," says Mr. Bonner. "The people leaning for change were suddenly stopped in their tracks."

Relations with the United States are at their lowest point in years, with the United States accusing Pyongyang of building nuclear weapons in violation of a treaty signed in 1994. The United States is withholding food and fuel aid, saying it will not help North Korea until its leaders promise to give up the nuclear program.

In the meantime, relations with its powerful neighbor, Japan, are improving and relations with South Korea have warmed considerably in the past decade. Although the two Koreas technically remain at war, there are now constant discussions between officials and an increasing flow of visitors across the border.

But by all accounts, most North Koreans are not aware of the international and nuclear policies of their isolated nation. For this week, most are preoccupied with attending memorials and films about their dead leader Kim Il Sung - still technically the nation's president.

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