ON THE PYONGYANG-BEIJING TRAIN – It’s 11:30 am on a cold, sunny February day in Pyongyang’s central station, and train number 5 to Beijing, with one stop in Dandong at the Chinese border, is about to leave. The train is roughly an hour late due to snow on the tracks. Foreigners mingle with locals in the waiting room, the passengers a mix of Chinese traders and businessmen and North Korean officials, including a courteous Spanish-speaking diplomat with fond memories of his visits to Cuba.

It is the same train that Dear Leader Kim Jong-il rides when he meets the leadership in Beijing, though Kim has his own luxury carriage, as his father had. Kim Il-sung’s plush, bulletproof carriages, gifts from both Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin, are now on display at the International Friendship Exhibition, a massive Korean-style building in Mt. Myohyang (wonderful and fragrant mountain). Both carriages sport a Panasonic twin-cassette audio-video system that was state-of-the-art in the early 1990s.

In the museum, one finds 55,000 or so gifts, some of questionable taste, that the Great Leader Kim Il-sung received from various heads of state, who range from French president Francois Mitterrand and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Yugoslav’s former president Josip Tito and Cambodia’s former king Norodom Sihanouk. There are also gifts from members of that elusive entity, the “international community,” representing 170 countries in five continents, the United States included – a gleaming science-fiction style map on the wall has glowing lights that represent the capital of each “donor” country.

A new section of the building in Mt Myohyang was built to contain the two train carriages. Gifts that Kim Jong-il has received are also on display. These include a Wilson basketball signed by Michael Jordan in 2000, offered by then-US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and a white football autographed in 2003 by Brazilian soccer legend Pele, described as “ex-minister of sports and king of world football.” It’s a made-in-China Nike ball bearing an “imperialist aggressor” red swoosh.

As train 5 glides slowly across the snowy countryside, it is clear that very few patches of land are not cultivated. There’s an endless succession of bullock carts and an occasional rusty tractor, as well as people carrying bags of rice on their backs or manually stockpiling coal. Much like China, North Korea’s main source of energy is still its enormous coal reserves. A civilian nuclear program would go a long way in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The ‘model’ question

What is internally described as a socialist paradise may be interpreted in the West as a metaphor of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But that’s not the point; what matters is ultimately the people. Exposure to the North Korean people in their own habitat is a deeply moving experience – from riotous children playing tug of war or jumping seesaw or the men playing janggi (Korean chess) or being surprised by a waitress who with an outstanding voice breaks into a patriotic song. As with Iraqis and Iranians, they could not be further removed from the vicious “axis of evil” stereotype.

So how to improve their standard of living? Opening up the DPRK’s economy for the moment is a rationed proposition – though there are small, coastal export zones that allow the Egyptian firm Orascom to build the mobile-phone network Koryolink (over 100,000 customers so far, still to be expanded to the rest of the country) and Argentine businessman to import cheap cabernet and Quilmes beer.

The deeper problem is that the DPRK is not heading towards some sort of hybrid post-communism nor pragmatically reforming the system like China or Vietnam – at least not yet.

There seems to be no hard evidence that the DPRK is about to emulate China, which evolved from a classic Leninist/Soviet model into a hybrid that includes public debate and participation at a local level while emphasizing meritocracy and competent management. The DPRK certainly won’t be inclined to smash its own social welfare state, which guarantees healthcare, education and key social services. China may not be a coherent – or exportable – model. But what the DPRK could adopt from China, for its own benefit, is the idea of flexibility and hybridization.

On paper, North Korea has virtually everything it needs to succeed. It boasts a well-educated and very disciplined workforce. It has a formidably strong and functioning central state – much like in China. The state in the DPRK is capable of reaching every single community and mobilizing and regimenting everyone for a national project.

Imagine North Korea’s comparative advantage in labor cost – on a large scale, this could be more radical than the “miracles” operated by the Southeast Asian tigers. The DPRK could profit itself from the fact that “enemy” powerhouses from South Korea, such as Samsung and LG, would love nothing better than to profit from this comparative advantage.

The Kaesong Industrial Park, inaugurated in 2004, is at least a step ahead. There, 114 small-sized South Korean companies are involved in joint ventures producing electronic equipment, clothing, golf bags and kitchenware that employ around 40,000 North Korean workers receiving a minimum wage of US$58 a month. It’s not much, but the salary is comparable to the jobs available in Pyongyang. Most of the goods are exported to either South Korea or Japan.

The North Korean military – much as the Chinese military – is very much in business via powerful trading companies that channel exports of gold, tungsten, magnesite (more than 6 billion tons of reserves), iron ore (more than 3 billion tons in reserves) and anthracite coal (more than 10 billion tons of reserves). And then there’s oil – the North may have around 2 billion barrels of oil reserves in the Yellow Sea coast, as Chinese oil majors have not failed to notice.

If all these factors were included in a concerted development policy, the rewards for North Korea would be immense. It comes down to a radical decision at the very top. All bets are off; will Kim Jong-il step up and emulate Deng Xiaoping, the trailblazer of China’s economic reform?

Once again, if it happens, when it happens, it will all have to do with juche – the Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s indigenous remix of Marxism/Leninism/Stalinism inflected with heavy boosts of Confucianism and metaphysics. Juche – “self-reliance” and independence – may have been asserted in the DPRK in ideology and politics, but not yet in economic terms. The state may have the capacity to fully regiment virtually the whole population – and is a nuclear power to boot. But still is not capable of adequately feeding all its citizens.

Kim Jong-il theorized in his juche book that, “All our scientists and theoreticians should uncompromisingly combat the reactionary, counter-revolutionary ideological trends including bourgeois ideas, feudal-Confucian ideas, revisionism, flunkeyism and dogmatism. They should … staunchly defend the juche idea.”

What is more in the spirit of juche – and less “counter-revolutionary” and “dogmatic” – than using all strategies available to achieve economic self-sufficiency?

Forget about regime change

Washington’s full regalia of Cold War armchair “experts,” not without exposing their varying shades of racism, have been predicting for two decades that North Korea will implode, explode, or both. Cartoonists depict Kim Jong-il as a porcupine spewing out missiles.

This is rubbish. Since the fall of the Soviet Union over 20 years ago, this small, post-colonial nation, against all odds, has faced the US and Western Europe’s relentless antagonism, sanctions, famine, poverty and had little outside help apart from China, and still managed to survive. It has survived 40 years of rash Japanese colonialism and what amounts to 60 years of national division and relentless Cold War.

Arguably, the DPRK has countless reasons for feeling deeply insecure and threatened by the outside world. It’s easy to forget that North Korea is the only socialist state to have had its territory occupied by a foreign army – the Americans, in the autumn and winter of 1950. And much more than Vietnam, it was bombed to smithereens.

The simple fact remains; the DPRK won’t go away. Beijing hopes that the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program may become an attempt at serious diplomacy and a real normalization of the US and European Union’s relations with Pyongyang; and on a parallel track China is ready to step up investment in the DPRK. As for ruling elites in the US – including the extreme right of the former vice presidential candidate Sarah “Barracuda” Palin kind – they may shelve their champagne bottles: regime change is not going to happen.

Train number 5 slowly approaches the Chinese border. Dandong is visible in the distance, bullock carts and communes on manual labor give way to gleaming towers and the neon signs of hardcore “market socialism.” The DPRK fades into the industrial powerhouse that is northeast China, while the question lingers; will juche eventually lead the DPRK to become a powerhouse in its own right in Northeast Asia?