ANALYSIS: N Korea’s anniversary chance for cash, new image

Reuters, PYONGYANG

Sat, Sep 08, 2018 - Page 5

North Korea’s celebrations marking its 70th anniversary tomorrow are expected to showcase a nation that has secured a nuclear arsenal and is focusing on developing its economy and cultivating international relations.

The events are to begin about a month of performances, as well as a trade show and other visits designed to drum up foreign investment and tourism spending in the sanctions-strapped nation.

Having declared his nuclear program “complete,” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will use tomorrow’s events to highlight his renewed focus on economic development, and possibly his diplomatic campaign that has netted him historic summits with the US, China and South Korea this year, analysts say.

“It is a day Kim Jong-un should reminisce the past 70 years of the republic, and it is an event where he has the pressure to offer a long-term statecraft vision that looks into more than 10 years that follow,” Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification senior researcher Hong Min said.

“However, it won’t be easy for him this weekend, because he did not really achieve anything groundbreaking after he changed the national policy line to economy-first,” Hong added.

Economic sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear weapons development have been squeezing the impoverished state, where about 40 percent of the population, or more than 10 million people, need humanitarian assistance and about 20 percent of children suffer from malnutrition, according to UN estimates.

Under Kim’s rule, the nation has also been accused of widespread human rights abuses, with a UN report last year estimating that 80,000 to 120,000 people are held in prison camps.

State media have called for the day to be “a celebration of the victor and continuously expand the results of the big economic development march.”

For the first time in five years, Pyongyang is organizing a “Mass Games,” a huge, nationalist pageant performed by up to 100,000 people in one of the world’s largest stadiums.

In downtown Pyongyang on Thursday, thousands of children in school uniforms could be seen practicing marching and playing music in Kim Il-sung Square and on street corners throughout the city.

Posters on major roads commemorated the anniversary and crews were seen patching the road between the airport and the city center.

One Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang was fully booked, mostly with foreign tourists and media.

The events, especially the photogenic Mass Games, offer North Korea a chance to raise foreign currency from thousands of international visitors pouring into the capital at a time when tourism remains one of the few remaining reliable sources of income amid UN sanctions targeting 90 percent of its US$3 billion annual exports.

While ticket prices for past Mass Games topped out at 300 euros (US$349.30), this year, VIP seats cost 800 euros, Koryo Tours general manager Simon Cockerell said.

The cheapest seats are 100 euros, with several other pricing brackets in-between.

Despite the costs, demand is strong, he said.

“There’s very high interest,” Cockerell said. “All the flights are full, all the hotels are full. It’s quite telling that Chinese tour companies were banned by the North Korean side from taking in any tourists until the middle of September, simply for capacity reasons.”

The Korea Maritime Institute, a South Korean think tank, estimates that tourism generates US$44 million a year for the North, with Chinese tourists making up about 80 percent of foreign visitors.

So far, only one head of state, from Mauritania, is known to be visiting North Korea for the celebrations, something North Korea blames the US for.

“The US is ... forcing other countries not to send high-level delegations to the celebrations of the 70th founding anniversary,” the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement published last month by the Korean Central News Agency.

After weeks of speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) might make his first visit to Pyongyang tomorrow, Beijing on Tuesday announced that the Chinese delegation would instead be led by Chinese National People’s Congress Chairman Li Zhanshu (栗戰書).

North Korea is also hosting a trade show and other trips aimed at attracting foreign investors later this month, but many are to remain wary of sanctions that still block many aspects of trade with the North.

Michael Spavor, a Canadian business consultant who heads the Paektu Cultural Exchange, said he is working with the North Korean government to bring about 25 Chinese investors and entrepreneurs to tour potential projects in Pyongyang, Wonsan and Nampho.

“We will attend matchmaking sessions with various government officials and stakeholders, as well as visiting existing and future development zones,” Spavor said.

Also on the expected schedule for tomorrow is a torchlight procession, as well as a military parade, which is to be closely watched for signs of new ballistic missiles or other advanced weaponry.

North Korea routinely uses major holidays to showcase its military capabilities and the latest developments in missile technology.

Satellite imagery suggests that the military component of the parade could be bigger than one held earlier this year, although no long-range ballistic missiles or their launchers have been spotted, the Web site 38 North says.

“Display of military prowess has always been crucial in North Korean statecraft, but North Korea does know that if they do display ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], the international society will doubt their willingness for denuclearization,” Hong said. “It’s highly unlikely that North Korea would be risking it.”