News

    North Korea Rolls Back Some Economic Reforms, Strengthens State Controls

    North Korea has claimed it has exploded a nuclear device, bringing the isolated country to the center of the world stage. A year ago, VOA correspondent Luis Ramirez became one of a very few Western journalists to visit Pyongyang. He had this report about the impoverished country's tentative economic reforms.

    At Pyongyang's Grand People's Study House, a giant library, students listen to a teacher describing how to use the latest version of an American computer operating system.

    Outside, Pyongyang's streets are dotted with vendors selling snacks, drinks, and offering bicycle and shoe repairs. Second-time visitors to this reclusive nation say there are a few more cars on what are, overall, largely empty streets.

    These scenes, combined with reports of growing trade with China and South Korea, might give the impression that North Korea is opening up. However, there are - more often than not - indications that little is changing.

    Moments after arriving in Pyongyang, a government guide lays out the rules for a group of visiting American journalists.

    "If you want to take photos of Korean people, then beforehand you have to ask permission. So before you take photos, first of all, you ask permission," the guide said.

    The guides repeatedly refused reporters' requests to interview or photograph Pyongyang's sidewalk entrepreneurs. They also refused to let reporters near a joint economic zone established two years ago near the South Korean border - a sign that North Korea is no longer eager to showcase its reforms.

    The reforms began three years ago, as part of an effort to revive the economy, which began to collapse in the 1990s after North Korea stopped receiving subsidized fuel and other goods from its former communist allies in Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union.

    Among other things, the government ended controls on wages and most prices, which led to massive inflation. But at the same time, it began to officially allow some private commerce, after more than 50 years of controlling distribution of most goods - from food to clothing to steel.

    There are questions as to whether the changes reflect any serious desire to reform the battered economy.

    Instead of expanding the 2002 reforms, the government appears to be scaling them back. In October 2005, authorities resumed the ban on the sale of grain on the open market - forcing people to once again depend on the public distribution system for their most basic food needs.

    Andrei Lankov, Korean studies professor at South Korea's Kookmin University, says the Kim Jong Il government is not following communist ally China's economic liberalization path. He says the two cases are vastly different with China leading the reform plan and North Korea legalizing an underground system.

    "In China, they were leading the development. In North Korea, the government was sort of dragged by the situation. It was not really leading the economy. The economy moved itself," he explained. "The government had no way but to reluctantly admit the changes, which had been taking place before."

    Professor Lankov says reforms or change are viewed by the Kim regime as a threat to its tight grip on power on the divided Korean Peninsula. He notes that South Korea's high standard of living and democratic government is seen as dangerous competition. He says Korea could be compared with what happened to Germany - which was also a country with Cold War divisions. He says North Korea is painfully aware that communist East Germany ceased to exist after reforms led to its unification with capitalist West Germany.

    "In Korea, you have a divided country and if North Koreans start reform, started changing themselves, what will stop North Koreans from simulating (emulating) East Germans? It's a question (for which) the North Korean leaders themselves have no answer," he said. "They understand that if they lose control, they can be overthrown in no time."

    At the capital's Mangyongdae Children's Palace, youngsters are taught to venerate their leader through painting, performances and poetry.

    Twelve-year-old Rim So Yon zealously praises Kim Jong Il. She says she has never met him but hopes to do so one day.

    When a reporter asks the girl if she knows what life is like in South Korea, a guide protests and orders the reporter to shut off his recorder.

    "Excuse me, excuse me. Turn it off. It's too big," the guide instructed.

    The guide says the question is "too big for a 12-year-old child." After the reporter insists, the guide hesitantly and vaguely asks the child the question. The child meekly answers that she knows life in the South is "good."

    Despite official bans on communication with the South, many North Koreans get glimpses of life there through radio broadcasts and illicit recordings of South Korean television soap operas.

    North Koreans are taught that their country is a paradise. The government promotes a cult of personality - teaching North Koreans their leader is god-like - a stark contrast to his international image as an absolute ruler who enjoys a life of luxury and has embarked on building nuclear weapons even while his people endured famine.

    Choe Hye Ok is a 26-year-old guide at a tower honoring the country's ideology of self-reliance, known as Juche. She says Kim Jong Il is the man of her dreams.

    "Of course, he is a great theoretician and noble man. He has a noble nature. He is a genius. He can create art and literature. He's a real genius," she said.

    RAMIREZ: "Is he a handsome man?"

    "Haven't you seen him?" she asked. "You see, I'm not married yet, but I'm looking for the leader general's style - if there is a man like him."

    It is difficult to gauge whether the devotion shown by Ms. Choe and others is sincere. Those who are allowed contact with foreigners are carefully screened to ensure their ideology will not be swayed by outsiders - whom one guide described as "contaminants."

    In this culture isolation from the rest of the world, some analysts question whether North Korea could truly liberalize under the current government. One Korea expert points to the examples of China and the former socialist nations of Eastern Europe, saying transitions there happened only after changes of leadership.

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clownsi
    X
    February 09, 2016 8:04 PM
    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay Prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Middle East Affairs and national security.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.