‘Axis of Evil’ puts on grand show, but noth­ing changes


The coun­try has won it­self a global fol­low­ing of hope­ful sup­port­ers af­ter its show this year of am­i­ca­ble re­la­tions

Some­where be­tween the im­ages flash­ing across a 20,000-per­son hu­man bill­board, the sight of dozens of kinder­garten­ers on uni­cy­cles and the roar of a crowd in the largest sta­dium on Earth, Bad­i­nan Kakei fell into a kind of delir­ium.

“I did find my­self one or two times clap­ping along and try­ing to cheer for the Supreme Leader,” he said, mo­ments af­ter ex­it­ing the in­au­gu­ral per­for­mance of the 2018 it­er­a­tion of the Mass Games, a North Korean spec­ta­cle of co­or­di­nated per­for­mance and rig­or­ous train­ing that is the iso­lated coun­try’s cul­tural icon.

“You get swept up in the mo­ment,” said Mr. Kakei, a man from Grimsby, Ont., who was in Py­ongyang this week as a tourist.

He is in good com­pany. North Korea, the “Axis of Evil” mem­ber that has threat­ened the fiery de­struc­tion of neigh­bours and en­e­mies alike, has won it­self a global fol­low­ing of hope­ful sup­port­ers af­ter its riv­et­ing show this year of am­i­ca­ble re­la­tions. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has hugged, held hands and strolled on the beach with his coun­ter­parts in South Korea, the U.S. and China, promis­ing de­nu­cle­ariza­tion as his regime pledges a “new era.”

In the past week, dur­ing a days-long cel­e­bra­tion of the coun­try’s 70th an­niver­sary, North Korea added to the pageant of ci­vil­ity. It held a mil­i­tary pa­rade no­tably de­void of the in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles whose de­vel­op­ment it has used to in­cite global fright. And it used its Mass Games as a show­case for good in­ten­tions rather than mil­i­tarism, flash­ing on its hu­man bill­board an enor­mous mes­sage in English and Chi­nese: “Sol­i­dar­ity, Co­op­er­a­tion, Good Neigh­bourli­ness, Friend­ship.”

Be­neath the sign, how­ever, was a small army of chil­dren, con­scripted to prac­tice and per­form as hu­man pix­els un­der se­vere con­di­tions that have, for years, made the Mass Games an em­blem of mis­treat­ment. That much had not changed.

And be­yond the grand show, fur­ther ques­tions re­main about what else has ac­tu­ally changed in a coun­try whose talk of nu­clear dé­tente has been ac­com­pa­nied by no ap­par­ent ef­fort to halt the pro­duc­tion of fis­sile ma­te­rial or dis­man­tle weapons.

In­deed, crit­ics say the prospect of a new North Korea − the one seem­ingly on dis­play in a place that has scrubbed its cap­i­tal of anti-U.S. pro­pa­ganda as it seeks ways to emerge from poverty and nu­clear iso­la­tion − is noth­ing but a chimera.

“Have you seen North Korea take even one step for­ward to em­brace the goal of de­nu­cle­ariza­tion? No,” said Zhang Lian­gui, a North Korea ex­pert at The Party School, the top in­sti­tu­tion for train­ing China’s Com­mu­nist elite.

“Dis­play­ing mis­siles or not, look­ing friendly or not, pre­sent­ing nu­clear weapons or not − all these are what the North wants the world to see. They don’t rep­re­sent any tan­gi­ble dif­fer­ence. They shouldn’t prompt any ex­cite­ment.”

Mr. Kim him­self has sig­nalled a much larger shift, in­clud­ing mak­ing eco­nomic ad­vance­ment a pri­or­ity over nu­clear de­vel­op­ment. But ”noth­ing fun­da­men­tal has changed,” said Michael Breen, the au­thor of Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Leader. “Deng Xiaop­ing hasn’t stood up and an­nounced any­thing. Khrushchev hasn’t de­nounced Stalin. There hasn’t been a power shift or a sig­nif­i­cant change.”

Yet, inside the iso­lated regime, where The Globe and Mail spent five days on a re­cent trip, there are signs of a coun­try that none­the­less har­bours as­pi­ra­tions for a dif­fer­ent fu­ture, with of­fi­cials and work­ers alike build­ing some­thing new in the shad­ows of an­ti­quated eco­nomic pol­icy.

Mr. Kim, who has made “im- prov­ing peo­ples’ lives” a credo of his lead­er­ship, presided over a 70th an­niver­sary na­tional day pa­rade on Sept. 9 that in­cluded no long-range mis­siles, but did fea­ture a float pro­claim­ing the “ro­bust foun­da­tion of an eco­nom­i­cally strong state” and a “flex­i­ble pro­duc­tion sys­tem,” em­ploy­ing some of the lan­guage of mod­ern eco­nomic in­no­va­tion.

Across the coun­try, mean­while, mar­ket prices dom­i­nate sales of do­mes­tic goods, while com­pa­nies race to em­brace moder­nity. Cen­tral au­thor­i­ties are award­ing in­no­va­tors, cul­ti­vat­ing a cul­ture of com­pe­ti­tion that re­minds some of South Korea in the 1970s. It’s not just Py­ongyang get­ting richer, ei­ther: Else­where, elec­tric bi­cy­cles are grow­ing more nu­mer­ous, as are sup­plies of im­ported wines and can­dies, as work­ers in pseudo-pri­vate jobs pad their wal­lets.

It all amounts to “a huge change,” as North Korea at­tempts “to adapt their in­dus­trial sys­tem to the de­mands of the ‘knowl­edge econ­omy,’ ” said Peter Ward, a Seoul-based re­searcher.

Among the few North Kore­ans The Globe was able to in­ter­view − al­ways un­der the watch of govern­ment-ap­pointed min­ders − there is ev­i­dence, too, of a pop­u­la­tion seiz­ing the lan­guage of change, some lit­er­ally.

Al­though lo­cal schools teach com­pul­sory English, a grow­ing num­ber of young North Kore­ans are self-study­ing Chi­nese, por­ing through books on buses and sub­ways in hopes of turn­ing lin­guis­tic skill to profit.

Py­ongyang’s streets are no longer empty tes­ta­ments to eco­nomic fail­ure. The city’s taxi fleet now num­bers in the thou­sands − not enough to turn Py­ongyang into Paris or even Ph­nom Penh, but enough to show how pri­vate travel is within grasp of grow­ing num­bers of ur­ban­ites.

Lee Cheol-hyok, a po­lice of­fi­cer, was re­cently posted to Won­san, an eastern sea­side city that North Korea has at­tempted to re­make into a tourist area, with beach­front re­sorts and a new US$200-mil­lion air­port. “When you go there, you can see the change with your own eyes,” he said as he pre­pared to pay re­spects to the coun­try’s first two lead­ers with his wife and daugh­ter on a re­cent day, flow­ers in hand.

Won­san is equally a sym­bol of waste: The air­port has barely been used since open­ing in 2015. Else­where, too, the link be­tween am­bi­tion and re­sults isn’t al­ways clear.

But Mr. Kim “wants to im­prove peo­ple’s over all liv­ing con­di­tions,” Mr. Lee said, point­ing to the 7th Congress of the Work­ers’ Party of Korea held in the spring of 2016. There, Mr. Kim called for “strongly ac­cel­er­ated build­ing of an eco­nomic power.”

That procla­ma­tion marked “a po­ten­tially momentous de­vi­a­tion from the strat­egy of his two pre­de­ces­sors,” Ruedi­ger Frank, a pro­fes­sor of East Asian Econ­omy and So­ci­ety at the Uni­ver­sity of Vi­enna, wrote in an on­line es­say. “De­spite his re­peated em­pha­sis on ide­ol­ogy, Kim Jong Un very clearly prom­ises his peo­ple a bet­ter ma­te­rial life.”

It’s all cur­ried a hope­ful­ness that has risen to the sur­face in un­ex­pected ways. There has been a no­tice­able in­crease of preg­nant North Korean women in their late 30s and 40s, “which to me sig­nals a re­newed con­fi­dence and op­ti­mism,” said Su­san Ritchie, the found­ing di­rec­tor of char­ity First Steps.

All of that is set against the grim re­al­ity of a coun­try where 70 per cent of peo­ple rely on govern­ment ra­tions; more than 40 per cent are con­sid­ered un­der­nour­ished. The coun­try’s in­fant mor­tal­ity rate is five times higher than South Korea. More than a quar­ter of chil­dren un­der five show signs of stunted growth.

At the same time, those statis­tics un­der­pin Mr. Kim’s move to now shift pri­or­ity, af­ter declar­ing his nu­clear pro­gram com­plete ear­lier this year. In­deed, it points to a leader for life cur­rently in his mid-30s tak­ing stock of a coun­try he can rea­son­ably ex­pect to head for decades to come − a re­con­sid­er­a­tion with im­por­tance, too, for Mr. Kim’s nu­clear threat.

“A nu­clear arse­nal will be help­ful for him to sur­vive five or 10 years,” said Chun Yung­woo, who was Seoul’s top rep­re­sen­ta­tive at in­ter­na­tional de­nu­cle­ariza­tion talks in the mid-2000s. But for the years be­yond that, Mr. Kim “needs eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment as well. And he knows that with­out com­pro­mise on the nu­clear front, this is not go­ing to be achieved.”

Py­ongyang says it won’t dis­man­tle its nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties with­out as­sur­ances that Wash­ing­ton has, in turn, pulled back its nu­clear pro­tec­tion of the Korean penin­sula, an un­likely prospect that raises the pos­si­bil­ity that ten­sions will re­turn.

But North Korea’s eco­nomic im­per­a­tive has grown strong enough that Mr. Chun be­lieves Mr. Kim has in­cen­tive to lay down his most po­tent weapons − a prospect most an­a­lysts have long dis­missed as im­pos­si­ble.

“If he hon­estly de­nu­cle­arizes fully, what it means is that he will main­tain a one-year la­tency from a nu­clear arse­nal,” Mr. Chun said. ”That kind of la­tency in re­turn for sanc­tions re­lief, a peace treaty, nor­mal new re­la­tions with the U.S., se­cu­rity guar­an­tees and eco­nomic ben­e­fits − that’s some­thing he can think about. It could be ben­e­fi­cial for him to be there, thriv­ing for 40 or 50 years as his king­dom be­comes big­ger and more pros­per­ous.”

Peo­ple par­tic­i­pate in the Mass Games cer­e­mony at the May Day sta­dium in North Korea.

Above: Peo­ple wave North Korean flags at a mil­i­tary pa­rade in Kim Il-sung square in Py­ongyang on Sun­day. Left: Women and men march in rows at Sun­day’s mil­i­tary pa­rade, which was no­tably de­void of in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles.

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