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As North Koreans struggle, the party keeps its grip

SEOUL » As military and political tensions persist on the Korean peninsula, North Korea is trudging through another winter of shortages, bitter cold, not much food and precious little fuel.

A recent report from the North described the longest stretch of subzero temperatures since 1945. A number of countries and international aid groups have reported desperate appeals from the government in Pyongyang for humanitarian food aid in the past few weeks. And an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease has infected more than 10,000 cows, pigs and draft animals.

But even in the face of such hardships, analysts said the Communist government showed no sign of relaxing its political grip or opening up its economy beyond agreeing to some joint ventures with China and allowing some private traders to operate.

"Reforms mean death," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert and professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. "It’s a matter of survival and control."

Recent refugees, scholars of North Korea and South Korean government officials see no signs that the economic hardships are pointing toward political instability. They see no existential threat to Kim Jong Il and his government, whether through civil unrest, political factionalism or a military revolt.

A change in government, as tantalizing as it might be to Seoul and Washington, seems remote. Kim, who turned 69 this month, looks to be in passably good health. And the apprenticeship of his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, appears to be under way, albeit slowly and quietly.

North Koreans certainly struggle to eke out a living, but they are not starving. And the situation is nothing at all like the so-called Arduous March famine of the mid-1990s. More than a million North Koreans reportedly died from starvation then when aid from Russia stopped, crops failed and the socialist system of food allotments fell apart.

"The gap between the elite and the rest of the country has probably never been wider," said John Everard, a former British ambassador to North Korea who is now a fellow at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. But at the same time, he added, "there’s no reason to expect things to change anytime soon."

China, North Korea’s principal benefactor and major ally, has suggested that the North might do well to consider making some market-style changes. The message is, profit by our example.

But North Korea has "a long track record of listening politely to — and then ignoring — these Chinese requests," Everard said.

China has been making major investments along its long-neglected northeastern border, its Rust Belt, and Chinese enterprises have struck major deals with well-connected North Korean trading companies, principally swapping roads, dams and bridges for iron ore and coal. (Because they are described as "humanitarian development," the deals circumvent the various international sanctions in place against North Korea.)

"They’ve clearly opened up to China in a way that’s unprecedented," said Bradley O. Babson, chairman of the DPRK Economic Forum of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

But "I don’t sense they’ve adopted a reform mentality at all," he added.

A New Year’s Day editorial, which typically sets the political tone and economic priorities for the coming year, said light industry would serve as a kind of defibrillator for stimulating the economy heading into 2012 — the 100th anniversary of the birth of the founding president, Kim Il Sung. A 10-year economic plan announced recently echoed the New Year commentary, which said the principal goal was becoming "a strong and prosperous country."

"Light industry" was mentioned 17 times, and Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, interpreted the terminology as an oblique reference to Kim Jong Un, the heir apparent.

Cheong said that Kim Jong Un’s birthplace, Changsong county, is now being held up to North Koreans as an economic exemplar, a model region studded with just the kind of domestically built small factories that were described in the commentary as "measures to ignite a manufacturing revolution."

There are, it must be said, glimpses of change. After a crackdown that started in late 2009, private markets and traders are now being tolerated again, if they pay off the police and enjoy the protection of a political or military godfather. They sell food, black-market grain, household goods and electronics — secondhand televisions, used rice cookers, VHS machines and the like.

"Whatever the Chinese are discarding become prized luxury items in North Korea," said John S. Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.

Orascom, the Egyptian telecommunications giant, is now providing cellular service in many North Korean cities. A student exchange program with Syracuse University — the only one in the United States — continues to operate. A new science and technology university also has opened in Pyongyang, built from scratch, with Internet access and classes in English. The school is financed by American and South Korean evangelical Christians.

Hard currency earned from the Kaesong industrial park operated jointly with South Korea will help the North toward its 2012 goal. But the conservative government in Seoul is hardly inclined to let 100 Kaesongs bloom, mostly for fear that the profits and resources would be funneled to the North Korean military.

Instead, the heavy economic lifting in the near term will have to be done by China.

"China is the oxygen mask," Park said. "North Korea is not so happy to have to rely on China, but they really have no alternative."

Analysts said the roadblocks to any meaningful change remained daunting, principally the Communist political elite, which is elderly, hard line and financially illiterate.

Everard, the former ambassador, described most of the senior leaders as "very old men, often in their 80s, who have hardly traveled and have no education in bourgeois disciplines like economics."

After the fall of East Germany, Everard said, top North Korean leaders were shown videos of former East German officials selling pencils in the streets, as a cautionary lesson on what can befall those who relax their grip on power.

"I think," he said, "that most of them got the message."


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