North Korea marks 60 years amidst hunger and uncertainties
A massive military parade through Pyongyang's central square named after Kim Il-sung, founder of the dictatorship, was the centrepiece of the celebrations. The sceptre of power in this hereditary Communist regime was passed onto his son Kim Jong-il. But the ‘Dear Leader’ has not been seen for about 40 days. For many observers his absence his due to tensions within the regime’s top brass or the neurotic fears of the leader, who might be hiding in a bunker against possible US air attacks. Kim Jong-il also suffers from diabetes and chronic heart disease.
The anniversary comes at a delicate time in North Korea’s relations with the international community. After years of talks to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, South Korea said last week the North has begun restoring its atomic facilities in apparent anger over not being removed from a US list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
But the greatest problem is the population’s utter destitution and hunger.
When the state was founded in 1948 Kim Il-sung had promised to feed his people with “rice and beef soup.” But so far North Korea has suffered from widespread poverty and survives only thanks to food handouts from the United States and neighbouring South Korea.
A nationalised economy, high defence spending (30 per cent of the government budget), natural disasters (flooding and draught), and inept policy-making in agriculture have brought hunger to the country, with hundreds of thousands if not millions dying.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, which can no longer back the regime and the Chinese decision to stop providing Pyongyang with loans and demand instead cash payment, further pushed North Korea into the abyss of hunger.
On and off Pyongyang has blackmailed the international community in order to save itself politically and materially through greater foreign food aid.
Many also fear a possible collapse of the regime and the political instability that would follow such a turn of event with the possibility of spreading poverty to neighbouring countries.
Two other factors explain rising concerns in the international community, namely the regime’s poor record on human rights, freedom of opinion and religious freedom and questions over who will succeed Kim Jong-il.