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For North Koreans, South's US Beef Protests Hold Lessons, Irony


North Korea's official news media have recently been praising South Korean anti-U.S. beef protests, describing them as a popular struggle against a "traitor" president. But as VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, the protests hold both irony and lessons for North Koreans.

North Korea's Central News Agency has been expressing solidarity recently with the South Korean protesters. The reports deride South Korean President Lee Myung Bak as a "begging president" who acts as a "puppet" to the United States, and says his administration has been "sentenced to death" by the popular struggle.

Ryoo Kihl-jae, a Dean at Kyungnam University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, says the protests are useful for the North's propaganda.

He says the North is enjoying the fact that the Lee administration is, as he puts it, "on fire." In addition to displaying its enjoyment, he says, the news releases are a way to show Pyongyang's displeasure at Mr. Lee's North Korea policies.

President Lee has taken a much stiffer line on North Korean aid than his two previous predecessors. North Korea has frequently rebuked Lee for what its media describes as straying from the spirit of the historic North-South summit in 2000.

However, Professor Ryoo points out North Korea is very selective in its coverage of the South's protests.

He says the North does not provide many details about the protests to its people-- choosing to portray them one-dimensionally, as an anti-Lee movement. He says if Pyongyang provided too many details about the protest, it might make North Koreans contemplate their own anger against their government.

North Korea has one of the most repressive authoritarian governments on the planet. Jang In Suk, a North Korean in her 60s who defected to the South about ten years ago, says protests like the ones in Seoul would be utterly inconceivable back home.

She says anyone who talks back to the North Korean government winds up dead, so citizens there do not even dream about protesting. She says, she wants to tell North Koreans that people in the South are like kings - they can speak out, protest, and publish. Such things are theoretically guaranteed in the North's constitution, but have no existence in reality.

North Koreans may perceive another ironic subtext in the South's protests, that South Koreans can afford a lengthy fight about how to indulge their consumption of beef. Most ordinary North Koreans have not tasted or seen beef from any nation for decades. Aid groups warn the North is teetering on the brink of its second famine in ten years, unless it receives donations of corn and other basic grains.

Cha Sung-Ju, a North Korean defector in his 40s, represents the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea in Seoul. He says it is unfortunate that most South Koreans become so emotive about the beef issue, but remain apathetic about suffering in the North.

He says millions of people are dying of starvation and suffering under dictatorship in the North. He says the hundreds of thousands who have joined the candlelight protests in Seoul have probably never lifted a candle for North Koreans.