In N. Korea, fewer guns, more butter?

The Baltimore Sun

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- The way Son Hye Suk sees it, having nuclear weapons means more than security for this Stalinist state. It means North Koreans will have more food on their plates.

"Our nuclear weapons are a source of great pride in our country, and if anyone insults us now, they won't survive," said Son, an ideologically vetted worker at the International Friendship Museum north of the capital. "Now that we have our pride, our great political and military power and nuclear weapons, the economic problems can be solved. The first aim of the Dear Leader is to improve the living standards of average people."

The secretive regime led by "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il has signaled a shift in its priorities since its reported nuclear test in October. Early hints were seen in the official New Year's message, in which the ruling Workers' Party announced that it would devote proportionately less of the nation's scarce resources to the military and more to providing apartments, food and clothing for its 23 million long-suffering people.

An admittedly limited view on the ground from this tightly controlled country, however, provides little evidence that new direction is being translated into reality.

"Our country is now building many apartments to solve the housing problem," said Lee Yun Chol, a tour guide. "Until last year, the policy was 'Army First.'"

Five days in Pyongyang - North Korea's capital, showcase city - and day trips to the country's north, south and west saw few apartment buildings under construction. All appeared relatively small, capable of housing, at most, a few hundred people. Some were being built with plaster-coated mud, most at a snail's pace.

It is not clear how Pyongyang plans to go about this supposed emphasis on the concerns of ordinary people.

"There's a lot of talk about more food, housing, consumer goods, but when you say, 'How are you going to do this?' their only response is 'more discipline,'" said Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the North Korea representative for the United Nations' World Food Program.

Compared with a visit in 2005, however, the inexpensive Chinese goods seeping into the economy appeared more numerous. Experts say small markets are proliferating, but this development is not advertised by a regime afraid of even the slightest weakening of its iron grip.

"We have no private markets," government minder Lee Gun Chol said categorically, when asked whether foreigners might visit one. "Our socialist economy is a planned economy. Ours is a better system than capitalism since everyone works together."

Mark Magnier writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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