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January 8, 2000
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The Koreas

PYONGYANG WATCH: All the winged horses . . .
By Bradley Martin

This is the year Juche 89, known in the West as 2000; North Korea dates its Juche or national self-sufficiency era from the 1912 birth of the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung. Juche 89 will be glorified ''as a year of proud victory in the flame of great Chollima upsurge'', the party newspaper Nodong Shinmun and two other official papers proclaimed in a joint New Year's editorial. And this glorious new year follows Juche 88, which the editorial calls ''a fruitful year in which the dynamic second Chollima advance was made''.

Chollima. Now there's a blast from the past. Inspired by China's Great Leap Forward, Kim Il-sung started the first Chollima movement in 1958. Starting in 1954, North Korea had transferred its farmland from individuals to cooperatives. With the Chollima movement, named after a mythical winged horse that could leap 1000 ri (about 250 kilometers or 150 miles), Kim took collectivization even farther.

Using the Chollima to symbolize the ''breathless speed of socialist construction and revolutionary spirit of Korea'', Kim set out to remake nature, reform society and revitalize the people. It was a time of high excitement as North Koreans, like Mao Zedong and his subjects next door in China, were swept away by an almost mystical belief that the stage of true communism was at hand.

Kim grouped the original cooperatives together in larger units under state control, which also functioned as the lowest level of local government. Still called cooperatives, these were in fact similar to China's then-new communes and the Soviet Union's collective farms. Boosting production was only part of the objective. At least as important was to turn peasants, whose propertied status inclined them to bourgois capitalist traits, into good members of the working class - and, thus, prospective communists.

The collectivization movement did bring some bigger harvests, but it failed to ''resolve questions of food'' - Kim's ambitious goal when he set out the five-year plan in 1956. The increases failed to meet planners' goals. Rationing - the surest sign of scarcity - continued.

And Chollima brought serious confusion around 1959, when planners misallocated resources to various sectors of the economy. Quality of production dropped, and eager-to-please economic units turned in inflated claims for their quantitative production. That year, Kim found it advisable to back off a bit. For example, he restored to farm families individual kitchen garden plots and the right to use them to raise chickens, pigs, ducks and rabbits for sale. The regime urged that the families use the money to build new houses. In the early 1960s Kim tried adding incentives, short of money bonuses. He combined ideological indoctrination with prizes, including free vacations, and awards of medals and honorific titles for exceeding production quotas. Those incentives proved insufficient to produce the growth he sought.

Most ordinary North Koreans, however, did not have direct knowledge of outside countries, and they knew that their own living standards had improved after the advent of communist rule. Thus, say some former residents of North Korea, people generally were inclined to believe Kim Il-sung's boast of having unfolded a paradise.

And thus the Chollima movement's name apparently retains enough cachet as a symbol of the good old days that current Great Leader Kim Jong-il has decided to revive the winged horse for a new campaign in which North Koreans once again are exhorted to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. The goal this time is to build ''a powerful nation''. Among other things, they must put North Korea's science and technology ''on the world's level in the shortest possible time''. The electrical power, coal and metal industries must be developed, as well as railway transport, light industry and agriculture. And of course North Koreans must ''step up major construction projects''.

Designating last year as the starting point for the second Chollima movement made a certain amount of sense, as it was the year when the country's decade-long economic bungee jump appeared to bottom out. In Juche 88, grain production was up 8.5 percent to 4.22 million tonnes, according to a year-end report by South Korea's Yonhap news agency, in Korean, that was carried in Seoul's Joongang Ilbo on December 29. And after a period in which many factories had stopped operating for lack of fuel, transport and raw materials, ''4,000 plants, including the Kim Chaek steel complex, are pouring smoke out of chimneys''. The year saw enactment of new laws on agriculture, fish farming, planning of the national economy and arbitration of external economic issues. A national meeting on the ''second grand march of Chollima'' was held on November 3, the Yonhap article says.

And shortly before that Kim Jong-il, meeting South Korea's Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju-yung, said he wanted to learn about the New Communities movement that had helped the South develop its economy.

Although the North had gotten the jump on the South economically in the post-Korean war period, Park Chung-hee's 1961 military takeover in the South led to a new phase in their contest. Within a few years Park's authoritarian regime had unleashed often brilliant economists and dynamic business leaders. Their mission: build a market economy modeled on that of Japan, employing close bureaucratic guidance and taking full advantage of a low-cost, hard-working, well-trained labor force. The formula - not too different from the ''state capitalism'' that Kim Il-sung had rejected as inappropriate for the North - worked for the South, producing a rapidly wealth-expanding, relatively free economy that eventually far outdistanced the North's economy.

Perhaps, commented the Yonhap writer, ''2000 will be the year to test whether [Kim Jong-il] will transform himself into the North Korean version of Park Chung-hee''. Well, maybe it's not TOTALLY impossible. As a January 3 Yonhap dispatch notes, North Korea last year apparently experienced its first economic growth in a decade. It has received some $200 million from Hyundai for the tours that the Southern conglomerate runs to the North's scenic Mt Kumgang. Much of the North's grain shortfall has been met with donations from abroad. ''With its most difficult economic periods in October and November last year, the North has seen business recovery in major industries such as metals, machinery and chemicals and its energy shortage solved to some degree,'' says Yonhap, quoting a report by Seoul's Korea Develpment Institute. Things should improve further as US economic sanctions are lifted.

''North Korea seems to have awakened to economic principles, seeing that it emphasized material interests in economics in its new year's message,'' Yonhap quoted a South Korean Unification Ministry official as saying.

If that means the country awoke to the reality and efficacy of the market economy, though, you wouldn't know it from reading Nodong Shinmun's issue of January 6. The party daily says in a signed article that the collapse of the capitalist system is ''inevitable''. Outside North Korea, Juche 88 is portrayed as a dreadful year in which ''the financial crisis which racked Brazil in January last year swept the American continent, hard hitting the capitalist system once again. The purchasing power of the developing countries decreased and economy went bankrupt. As a result, strongholds of capitalism called markets fell down like a sodden wall.''

Oh, things do look bad out there: ''Nothing can save the capitalist system from its collapse and its worsening crisis,'' warns Nodong Shinmun.

(Special to Asia Times Online)

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