Kim Jong-il's Visit to Hamhung Is a Bad Sign

  • By Kang Chol-hwan from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

    March 11, 2010 13:39

    Kang Chol-hwan

    I visited Hamhung many times before defecting to South Korea, and whenever I went I felt distinctly uncomfortable. Hooligans clustering at the railroad station glared at the goods carried by pedestrians and provoked quarrels if they thought you were looking at them. At construction sites in Pyongyang, the word was that Hamhung people were wild. Often there were gang fights at project sites where tens of thousands of youths from different regions had been mobilized, and Hamhung youngsters were always the most violent. The city was home to the greatest number of organized gangs, and even police officers couldn't handle them. Hamhung also has more access to outside world as it is an intermediary place through which all things coming in through the northern border with China pass.

    As long as 20 years ago, markets in Hamhung were so active that almost everything was available there. It was here, among other cities, that market traders rioted in the wake of a recent disastrous currency reform since they suffered greater damage due to the bigger size of the markets.

    I also got the impression that many young people in Hamhung listened to South Korean broadcasts, and those who didn't know South Korean pop songs were treated as country bumpkins. The people there struck me as more resilient than in any other city, and that may be a reason that the city often sees public executions.

    Now, Kim Jong-il showed up in the city to attend a mass rally celebrating the re-dedication of the February 8 Vinalon Complex. Kim has never attended a mass rally in a provincial city. He must have had a very good reason to do so.   

    Considering what the North needs most urgently at the moment is fertilizer, it would have been natural for Kim to visit the nearby Hungnam fertilizer plant. But instead he went to the vinalon plant, a symbol of the failed socialist planned economy. Vinalon, a synthetic fiber North Korea has developed using carbide extracted from anthracite, is a poor-quality and no longer economically viable. At the same cost, more, better-quality fabric can be imported from China, so no other country in the world produces vinalon for clothing. North Korean founder Kim Il-sung spent no less than US$10 billion on a vinalon plant in Pyongyan Province, which turned in the end into scrap metal. That was a decisive incident that led to the economy's collapse. The February 8 Vinalon Complex was shut down a long time ago.

    With the mass rally for its reopening, Kim evidently intended to demonstrate his pathetic determination that nothing will change in North Korea, ever. There will be no reform nor market opening, even if its economy collapses or it is driven into chaos, and although the prime minister apologized for the failed currency reform. It is a clear signal that Kim will go his own way against the current of history and regardless of what outsiders think. Under these circumstances, how likely is it that Kim will make a forward-looking choice in the nuclear issue?

    It has been unimaginable for the paranoid leader to go to any mass event in the provinces. That he has chosen to throw caution to the wind and go to one of the most volatile cities in the country suggests he has declared open war against his people and their grievances. I feel this is a bad omen.

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