N.Korea to Spend Billions on Centenary Celebrations

North Korea is about to spend an estimated US$2 billion, or one third of its annual budget, to mark the centenary of nation founder Kim Il-sung on April 15, plus an additional $850 million to build a three-stage rocket and launch pad for the event. The total would be enough to buy 4.75 million tons of rice based on current grain prices at $600 per ton as the regime holds out its hands for international food aid.

North Korea's state budget last year was $5.7 billion, and the price tag of the centenary celebration has been estimated to be around $2 billion, according to a South Korean government source. The North invited representatives from 48 countries to Pyongyang for the centenary.

An official from a former Soviet state said, "North Korea invited around 100 representatives from my country and offered to pay their airfare and accommodation. I've been to Pyongyang several times, but this is the first time this has happened." The official said hundreds of dancers and other performers have been invited from other countries "and I believe the delegation of foreign guests is close to 10,000."

The regime apparently promised its people 100 gifts for the centenary. A Unification Ministry official said North Korea has spent anywhere between $300 million and $800 million every five or 10 years on the April 15th celebrations, and this year is expected to spend at least $1 billion. That is more or less the entire $1.15 billion it earned from selling anthracite and other natural resources to China last year.

Over the last two or three years, there have been various big construction projects to mark the centenary, including the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, a high-rise apartment block in the Mansudae district of Pyongyang, and a folk village and an aquarium in the capital. The aquarium will contain dolphins, and a 50 km canal is being dug to pump in sea water from Nampo.

The North has mobilized soldiers and university students to make up for a shortage of workers, which is why it announced temporary closure of universities from June 2011 until next month. Even special forces have been mobilized to build the folk village in Pyongyang. 

These astronomical sums are apparently being spent to honor the dying wishes of former leader Kim Jong-il. Kim's propaganda machine had vowed to turn North Korea into a "powerful and prosperous nation" by 2012. The regime even cited stress and overwork in the service of his pledges as the official reason for his death.

New leader Kim Jong-un now has to announce that the economic basket case is indeed a "powerful and prosperous nation" at a Workers Party conference in the middle of next month, where he is likely to be appointed general secretary of the party. A government official here said, "The North Korean economy is already moribund and could go completely bankrupt due to these efforts."

englishnews@chosun.com / Mar. 20, 2012 09:35 KST