Wednesday, January 07, 2004

The Free Market Emergence in North Korea

Advances in Health, Nutrition, Transportation, Energy, and Colorful Clothing.


KOSONG, North Korea (AP) - A curious new message shines through the timeless communist slogans slapped up everywhere in town urging loyalty to the party, the army and Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.

"Let's run our farms as if we own them ourselves!" reads its bold red and white letters, freshly painted onto building sides by North Korea's busy propaganda scribes.

Few toe the new line like Kim Hak Chol, a farmer in a Mao-style navy blue uniform. The 15-acre farm he manages has 70 sprawling greenhouses brimming with cabbage, hot peppers and turnips and 80 North Korean staffers trained by South Korean agriculture experts.

The farm is still government-owned, but Kim surveys the rows of domed hothouses with a proprietor's pride. The high-tech spread is not only five times as profitable as the average North Korean collective farm, it stands at the vanguard of fledgling free-market reform in the world's most regimented communist country.

"My New Year's wish is to boost production," said the 42-year-old Kim, taking a bite of fresh lettuce.

Five years ago, North Korea opened parts of Kosong, an east coast county with 30,000 people, to South Korean tourists who travel across the Demilitarized Zone that has separated the two Koreas for half a century to view nearby Diamond Mountain.

Hyundai, the South Korean conglomerate running the tourism project, opened Kim's farm in 1999 to supply vegetables to tourists. Two years ago, it handed it over to North Koreans, who get to keep 40 percent of the 20 tons of vegetables grown each month, while giving up the remainder to repay Hyundai's investment.

Kosong underscores how Pyongyang has tried to tinker with opening to the outside world even as it clashes with neighbors over its nuclear weapons program and a group of Americans visits the country this week to tour the disputed Yongbyon nuclear power.

The improved lifestyle in Kosong, however, highlights both how meager market reforms have already reaped rewards and how North Korea is trying to polish its image for visitors from the South.

"I came here two years ago. This time I am surprised to see more bicycles on the roads, people looking better fed, more energetic and wearing colorful clothes," said Dho Young-shim, a South Korean ambassador for cultural cooperation who arrived with a dozen foreign ambassadors and journalists over the New Year's holiday.

In Kosong, children and housewives wave at the South Korean tourist buses. Along main street, a new row of four-story apartments rises before old low-slung, cinderblock huts.

Signs in shops, off limits to foreigners, advertise Kosong's plenty in an otherwise poverty-stricken land - fish soup, warm rice and "sweet meat," a dog meat delicacy. Women hawk liquor from street stalls.

"The thing that struck me most is to see that this experiment is working," said David Taylor, New Zealand's ambassador to Seoul who doubles as his country's chief envoy to the North. "This shows that it is possible to bring North Korea into modern technology cooperatively."

So far, 596,000 South Koreans have visited the Kosong area since Hyundai launched its tourism venture at Diamond Mountain in 1998. Hyundai has had heavy losses in the project, but is credited with breaking five decades of isolation and persuading the North to accept Southern investors and tourists.

Competition between the two restaurants in Kosong that are open to dollar-wielding South Koreans is so fierce that one is now selling rice wine, banned for decades in North Korea because of rice shortages.

"After South Korean tourists complained, the manager somehow found an old woman who still remembered how to make rice wine," says Kim Soo-hyun, a Hyundai official.

Yet contradictions abound in Kosong, as the government tries to balance economic reform with tight political control over the populace. There are few cars, and everybody seems to walk. As dusk falls over the denuded hills, smoke hangs low over villages as homes burn firewood for heating. And photography is strictly forbidden.

Alongside the new market-oriented propaganda hang classic Marxist maxims: "When the party decides, we follow!" and "We will always be victorious as long as we have our Great General Kim Jong Il."

One of the first things Kim, the farm manager, did upon over the greenhouses from Hyundai was to hang a sign across the gate: "Hurray to General Kim Jong Il, the Sun of the 21st Century!"

Tour guides are quick to caution travelers about the ubiquitous North Korean soldiers. "Do not take photos of North Korean soldiers," they repeat. "Things can get complicated."

When tour buses cross the DMZ, goose-stepping soldiers come aboard. Once, a communist officer found a South Korean woman sitting cross-legged. Taking offense, tour guides say, the officer scowled and barked: "Female comrade, untie your legs!"

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  • Untie your legs indeed.

    Time to let the free market reign here in the good ol U.S. of A. In fact, it is long past the time to retrieve some of our losses from the last 100 depressed years of fiscal irresponsibility, taxation, excessive regulation, political malfeasance, and monetary interventionism.

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