- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2001

SEOUL — Happy birthday, Great Leader. Brought to you by Heineken with its passion for "perfect beer. " And by Fila: Outfits a little easier, a little quicker.
For the first time, communist North Korea marked its biggest national holiday - the birthday of late national founder Kim Il-sung - with the help of sponsorship from Western companies.
About 500 North Korean runners and 50 from nearly two dozen other countries including the United States, on Sunday raced along the wide boulevards of the capital, Pyongyang, in a marathon that was coordinated by ISL, a Swiss-based sports marketing firm. Some wore corporate logos.
North Koreas state-run media made no mention of the foreign companies role in the race, which started and ended in the monolithic, 70,000-seat Kim Il-sung stadium.
"It is sponsored by the Athletic Association on the principle of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, " reported KCNA, North Koreas foreign news outlet.
North Koreas decision to allow foreign companies to get involved in an event held in honor of its revered late president, known as Great Leader, contradicted its espousal of a philosophy of self-reliance, called "juche, " as well as longtime condemnation of Western capitalism.
However, the move was in line with the isolated nations efforts last year to engage South Korea, open diplomatic ties with European and other nations and adopt what North Korean leader Kim Jong-il termed "new thinking."
The North Korean effort has prompted skepticism from President Bush, who said last month that he does not trust North Koreas leadership, and a subsequent chill in Pyongyangs rhetoric aimed at both Washington and South Korea.
The chill continued yesterday when North Korea warned South Korea not to join the United States in a military exercise this month, saying such an act would betray their historic agreement to pursue peace and eventual reunification.
But the Norths Foreign Ministry also said it was as ready for dialogue as for war. The comment indicated it has not abandoned a reconciliation process that stalled this year with Mr. Bushs stern comments.
South Korean defense officials, accustomed to fiery rhetoric from the North, said they would go ahead with the weeklong war games, which start Friday.
"Its common North Korean propaganda. We are not too concerned about it, " a spokesman at South Koreas office of Joint Chiefs of Staffs said on the condition of anonymity.
Kim Jong-il, who took power after his father, Kim Il-sung, died in 1994 at age 82, appeared enthusiastic about Chinas economic reform model during a trip to China in January.
But there is little evidence that he has taken steps to fundamentally reform his devastated economy, a policy that could threaten his totalitarian control over North Koreas 22 million people.
Some foreign companies do business in North Korea, but the rewards are slim. Poor infrastructure, the lack of legal safeguards and the uncertain political situation on the Korean Peninsula make trade a risky prospect.
The North is looking for foreign investment to help alleviate widespread food shortages.
After the worst harvest in four years of famine, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) estimates that North Korea has just two-thirds of the food it needs to get through the year.
The main autumn harvest of corn and wheat fell 1.8 million tons short of its 4.8 million ton target, said David Morton, the WFP representative in North Korea.
To cope, North Koreans are foraging the hills for wild mushrooms and edible leaves, he said. Leftovers, such as cabbage stalks, are ground up with wheat to make noodles that offer little nutrition, Mr. Morton said in Beijing.
"We still see malnutrition. There are some indications this may be more than last year, " said Mr. Morton, who is based in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
North Koreas economy has not recovered from the loss of its largest trade partner, the Soviet Union, in 1991, and a series of major droughts and floods beginning in 1995.
The Norths deprivation was carefully hidden during weekend celebrations in memory of the elder Mr. Kim.
The companies advertising in Pyongyang hope to establish a foothold that eventually could benefit them should the market open.
"We thought it was a good opportunity to make some money, " said ISL representative Morgan Chenneour. "Were not in the politics game, were in the business game. Theres a potential there. The market itself is small, but the interest is high."
Other sponsors of the marathon were Dutch beer maker Heineken; Italys Fila Sports SpA; DatActivity.com, a Swiss data processing company; and Britains Financial Times newspaper.
Western products such as Fila sportswear and Heineken beer are available only in a handful of stores for the elite and foreign residents and are beyond the financial means of the vast majority of the population.
Nevertheless, the sponsors got out their message to the spectators lining the route, with runners wearing T-shirts with Fila logos. The Financial Times sent some staff members to participate in the run with clothing that bore the company logo. Heineken was scheduled to sponsor a beer party for the contestants.
Prize money awaited the winners, including $3,000 for North Korean Kim Jung -won, who finished the mens race in two hours, 11 minutes and eight seconds. Jong Yong-ok, also from North Korea, was awarded $2,000 after winning the womens contest in two hours, 28 minutes and 32 seconds.
The Pyongyang race began in 1981 and was held annually until 1992 as part of the birthday celebrations. After skipping it for seven years, apparently for economic reasons, the North revived it last year with about a dozen foreign runners taking part.
The most renowned North Korean long-distance runner is Jung Sung -ok, who won the womens marathon at the 1999 World Championships in Seville, Spain, and returned home to a tumultuous welcome.
Sunday, known in North Korea as "Suns Day, " was the culmination of several days of commemorative events that marked Kim Il-sungs birthday, including art and theater shows, seminars, and the laying of floral baskets at a 66-foot-high bronze statue of the late leader that overlooks Pyongyang.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide