- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

BEIJING The software market has an unlikely new competitor: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Mr. Kim's government opened a trade show on Saturday at a Beijing hotel to promote the work of its software developers, a previously unknown industry that the secretive communist regime hoped would help to revive a famine-wracked economy.
The force behind it all, North Korean officials said, was Mr. Kim himself, the reclusive and authoritarian leader whose face appeared on portraits throughout the show.
"The great General Kim Jong Il is devoted constantly" to information technology, said Kim Ho, an official of North Korea's Academy of Sciences speaking at a news conference.
Developers were to display more than 100 products, from translation programs to video games.
"We'll see whether they have any depth of skills," said Eric Sheridan, a Hong Kong-based American software executive who attended the presentation.
U.S. law bars trade with North Korea which President Bush has called part of an "axis of evil" but Mr. Sheridan says he wants to know about future suppliers for his California firm if that rule changes.
Software adds to a jumble of ventures introduced by North Korea for an economy that lies in ruins since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Flood and drought since the mid-1990s have left the government in Pyongyang dependent on foreign aid to feed its 22 million people.
The North farms ostriches, runs a casino for foreigners and rents laborers to Russia. South Korean factories in the North make textiles and assemble cars and electronics.
The United States and other governments say North Korea also trades in missiles, drugs and counterfeit $100 bills.
The isolated North makes an unusual player in the freewheeling world of software and the borderless Internet.
But Kim Jong Il was said for years to be encouraging high technology. He visited China at least twice to study its reforms and last year toured a Shanghai software laboratory.
This year, North Korea has a booth for the first time at Comdex, China's annual computer trade show, under way in Beijing this month, that is separate from the North Korean exhibition.
The North Korean booth at Comdex had no software on display last week, but computer terminals were hooked up to a North Korean Web site. Some showed a picture of the smiling face of Mr. Kim's father, the late "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung.
The U.S. trade ban shuts North Korea out of the biggest software market. The ban dates to the 1950-53 Korean War, when American troops fought alongside the forces of rival South Korea.
Yet the North Koreans at the presentation Saturday seemed well-versed in Western standards. They said their programs run on both major American operating systems Microsoft's Windows and Apple's Macintosh.
"It could be all just bunk. It's hard to say," said Mr. Sheridan. Or, he said, "behind their curtain, they could have people who are really knowledgeable and plugged into the industry abroad."
There were plenty of reminders of North Korea's intensely isolated culture of propaganda, based on an almost religious adulation of Mr. Kim and his father.
Their portraits looked down from above the speakers, who wore badges with the elder Kim's portrait and peppered their comments with references to "demolishing imperialism" and other communist slogans.
The officials said the North hopes to branch out into software for electronic commerce, biotechnology and artificial intelligence.
"The government gives us a lot of assistance. Our information-technology industry will surely develop very quickly," said Li Chen Jin, director of the North's Academy of Sciences.

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