Dear Leader keeps N Korea in dark over peace

Stephen Vines in Pyongyang finds the Stalinist state still ready for war
On the day after the historic preliminary Korean peace talks broke down in New York last Friday, the North Korean regime chose to inform its people that Kim Jong Il, the "Dear Leader" and son of the deceased Kim Il Sung, had visited a military circus. Not a word was uttered about the talks having taken place.

In the surreal world of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, circuses are more important than the gruesome reality of what is happening to a nation sliding into a level of poverty and deprivation seen no where else in Asia.

However, the ruling Worker's Party newspaper, the Rodong Sinmum obliquely referred to the talks over the weekend by publishing a commentary under the banner headline "Responsibility Cannot be Avoided", in which it made clear that North Korea was still on a war footing with the South.

"The military confrontation between North and South is becoming more tense," said the commentary, placing the blame on the Americans "for inciting the South Korean puppet towards confrontation between North and South".

The paper, the authoritative voice of the regime, demanded that the talks take place solely between North Korea and the United States, as the South was "just the servants of the Americans". America was told also to withdraw its troops.

Although the paper did not say so, these are the reasons why the talks about talks broke down, though another session may commence this Friday. The very existence of the talks is a breakthrough as there have been no substantive discussions on a North-South peace agreement since the 1953 armistice agreement which set the division of the country in concrete. The participation of China, alongside the US, is another sign of the serious nature of the discussions. Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, China has been North Korea's sole political and economic ally of consequence.

The regime in the North, now seemingly under the control of Kim Jong Il, although he has not inherited his father's titles of President and party leader, is doing nothing to prepare its population for a change of circumstances. The state-controlled media continue to shriek about the "US war-maniacs" and warn its people to be prepared for war. All office and factory workers still take part in daily air raid preparation exercises.

A visit last week to the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom, which separates North and South, was accompanied by constant warnings of the possibilities of attack at any time. The intrusive accompaniment of military officers was said to be for the visitor's "protection". "We are on a state of high alert", said one. Much of this is propaganda but only a fortnight ago shots were exchanged.

Although North Korea is suffering from possibly the worst famine in its history, the army appears well fed and to have fuel for its vehicles. While the rest of the country has ground to a virtual halt, the army still seems to be receiving weapons and the means to maintain them.

The regime knows it cannot feed its people and needs to open its doors to the international community, but in the paranoid, secretive world of North Korean politics, it cannot bring itself to swallow the compromises required to stave off the crisis.