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Life in nuclear N.Korea beats to drum of leader Kim

Lindsay Beck / Reuters | October 12 2006

Few cars ply the roads, mobile phones are banned and the main fashion accessories are buttons of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il -- life in nuclear North Korea is anything but normal.

The country, famously branded by President Bush as part of an "axis of evil" alongside Iran and pre-war Iraq, has been making banner headlines since it announced on Monday it had conducted a nuclear test.

But diplomatically isolated and politically repressive, the state dubbed the Hermit Kingdom remains an enigma.

Even the few visitors allowed in are treated only to tightly guided tours, invariably beginning with a trip to pay homage to the state's late founder, Kim Il-sung, at a giant bronze Kim statue that towers over the capital, Pyongyang.

His son, current leader Kim Jong-il, has been mocked in the West for his permed hair and khaki jumpsuits, but he has continued his father's iron rule and cult of personality.

And with his persistence in developing the country's nuclear program in defiance of international pleads and threats, he has served notice that, despite his rumored penchant for cognac and Hollywood films, he is anything but a joke.

"People are aware of the climate in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, and they feel that the only way to stay secure is to be strong," said one foreign businessman who travels often to North Korea.

The only adornment on the drab clothes of its citizenry are badges of Kim father and son -- known as the Great Leader and the Dear Leader -- whose faces also peer over Pyongyang in giant posters proclaiming the country's happiness and prosperity.


In reality, decades of isolation and economic mismanagement have left the country of 23 million so poor it is reliant on international food aid and so short of fuel that observers gauge the state of the economy by how dark the capital is at night.

In villages visible from neighboring China, farmers in ragged clothes fish or tend cattle. Their houses appear small and shabby, many with tiles missing from their roofs.

Some small-scale private trade has sprung up and street kiosks in the wide boulevards of Pyongyang sell snacks and cigarettes, but in the centrally planned economy, most residents still owe their jobs, homes and food rations to the state.

The government's fears for its grip on power have left the entire North Korean press under the direct control of Kim Jong-il, the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders says, ranking the country last in its press freedom index.

"Journalists there simply relay government propaganda. Anyone out of step is harshly dealt with," the group said.

Mobile phones are banned and even visitors must check theirs at the airport. The Internet has been bypassed in favor of an intranet, with only content that has been politically vetted.

"It's so hermetically sealed," said the businessman. "They do question, but there's so little to question because there's so little information coming in."

But despite the propaganda, the poverty and the blustering threats, for average citizens, day-to-day concerns are much the same as anywhere.

"People just want to get their kids through school and get on with life," the businessman said.


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