Stalinist door ajar for brief encounter

Weird jamborees are a way of life in archaic North Korea, writes Teresa Poole in Pyongyang
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The Independent Online
It's show time in Pyongyang. In the cause of world peace, North Korea has opened its doors to an unlikely cast of players. Ric Flair, Flying Scorpio, Road Warrior Hawk, and other stars from the world of American and Japanese professional wrestling will take to the ring in the 150,000- seat May Day stadium for the Pyongyang International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace, which opens today. Despite his poor health, Muhammad Ali has also been flown in as a distinguished guest for the two-day event.

More of a challenge both for the city's hoteliers and for the security police in this normally closed Stalinist state are the 15,000 foreign visitors who have been allowed to attend "peaceful interchanges in the fields of sports and culture including music and art''.

For the past few days, aircraft and trains have been disgorging tourists, mostly Japanese, Chinese and overseas Koreans, but also some Westerners, for Pyongyang's brief encounter with the outside world. In a rare gesture of goodwill, Americans and foreign journalists have also been welcomed for the party. The festival is the brainchild of the Japanese wrestler and promoter Antonio Inoki, who has staged similar events in Baghdad, Peking and Moscow.

North Korea's decrepit economy and need for foreign investment may be the driving force behind this tentative experiment with an open door policy, but for the time being this is perhaps the last country which knows how to stage a good old-fashioned, Communist extravaganza. Where else could you watch a mass gymnastics display by 50,000 performers, scheduled for this morning in the Kim Il Sung Stadium?

This is, of course, a country where everyday life is stage-managed, so the government is well practised at putting on a show. It starts on the streets of Pyongyang, whose inhabitants have been told to wear their Sunday best for the festival period. Every man is in a dark suit and tie, and the rigidly ordered bus queues are brightened by a few women in flowing brocade and chintz national dress. As for the children, they appear to spend an inordinate amount of time marching through town in crocodile formation singing patriotic anthems. And what of the old and the disabled? They seem to have be written out of this week's script.

The busloads of foreign visitors are being ferried to the places the government wants them to see. Yesterday a convoy of 14 coaches drove south down the Reunification Highway towards the military demarcation line at Panmunjom to gape at the "puppet bandits'' of South Korea.

At the other end of the propaganda spectrum is the £62m Mangyongdae Schoolchildren's Palace in Pyongyang, where "talented children'' daily put on a dazzling display of dancing and music, punctuated by an audience of less talented children who clap on cue at politically approved moments.

On Wednesday, the fiercest applause was naturally reserved for any reference to the late Great Leader, President Kim Il Sung, who died last July after ruling the country for 46 years, but whose image still holds the country in thrall. Yet the finale, performed by a 400-strong choir, was the song "Let's Get Ready for the Supreme Commander, Comrade Kim Jong Il'', as the Dear Leader's picture was projected on to the back of the vast stage.

The rest of the world is certainly ready to find out whether the younger Kim has really stepped into his father's shoes, and analysts will be keenly watching today to see if he appears for the peace festival's spectacular opening ceremony. So far, the political succession has been a mysterious affair, with few public appearances by the younger Kim, who has yet to be formally appointed as President and head of the Korean Workers' Party. His most prestigious title is that of Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army, a post be assumed two years ago.

Since Kim Il Sung's death, the younger Kim, 53, has been conspicuously absent from public view, heightening speculation that either his health is poor or that he is mired in a succession struggle. On New Year's Day, he failed to give the traditional address or attend ceremonies, and only materialised in a photograph in the official press.

For Army Day, on Tuesday this week, a similar photograph was published of a visit by Kim Jong Il to a military unit. This may have failed to satisfy observers who are keen to see the man in the flesh but provoked another stream of official adulation, including an embarrassment of poems to mark the day, As the Korean Central News Agency reported, "The poem `He is Our Supreme Commander' highly praises Comrade Kim Jong Il, who has performed immortal feats in the history of humankind, leading a large army of the enemy by the nose with extraordinary intelligence, distinguished strategy and great heart."