By Simon Martin
A chill wind swept Pyongyang's Kim Il-Sung Square but the thousands of dancers were undeterred as they twirled to lively music from loudspeakers. So what were the songs about? Love? Marriage? Heartbreak?
"This one is about Vinalon," my official minder told me.
For those unfamiliar with one of the most bizarre nations on earth, Vinalon is a synthetic textile hailed as one of the wonder products of North Korea. Most of the song & dance numbers were, unsurprisingly, about the Kim dynasty, which has ruled for three generations with an iron fist since the country’s founding in 1948. "Hurrah for Generalissimo Kim Il-Sung" and "Safeguard Supreme Commander Kim Jong-Un with our Lives" were some of the catchier titles.
Even so, the dancers -- with their outsized Korean appetite for life -- appeared to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.
AFP Photo/Pedro Ugarte
North Korea dominated my six-year stay in Seoul, and a five-day trip to Pyongyang in April this year was the highlight of the assignment. But like most other Seoul correspondents, I wished I could spend more time writing about "nice" rather than "naughty" Korea, as one Australian paper dubbed the two halves of the tragically divided peninsula.
The North's nuclear and missile programs -- and its strident military threats -- regularly top the international news agenda. However, I often felt South Korea was the real story. A country left in abject poverty and ruin when the Korean War ended in 1953 transformed itself into a global economic powerhouse and, even more impressively, discarded decades of dictatorship to build a lively democracy.
Unlike its impoverished northern neighbor, still stuck in a Stalinist time warp which has produced an entire malnourished and stunted generation, the South is constantly changing and reinventing itself. A country once seen as unwelcoming to foreigners now has more than 1.1 million residents from overseas. One out of every 10 marriages in 2009 was an international match.
A nation which long clung to traditional gender stereotypes seems likely to elect its first woman president come December. South Korea is the world's biggest shipbuilder, Hyundai/Kia is the world's fifth largest carmaker, the hallyu (Korean wave) of pop culture has swept through Asia and the United Nations chief is a Korean. The country even came fifth in the medals standings at the London Olympics.
AFP Photo/Pedro Ugarte
Samsung is an example. It began life in 1938 as a trading company with 40 employees and is now the world's biggest technology firm with some 200,000 staff worldwide. And many people in the West still think it's a Japanese firm.
South Korea, with some justification, frets that it still doesn't get the international attention it deserves. The Presidential Council on Nation Branding, whose official title is thought to be unique, works to develop the country's "soft power" and influence. But South Korean stocks, and indeed the whole country, battle a "Korea discount" -- an undervaluation due to perceived risk, mainly from the North.
Never was this more apparent than on November 23, 2010, when the North fired a barrage of artillery shells onto a South Korean border island, killing two marines and two civilians in the first such strike since the Korean War.
The shock and anger were palpable on the streets of Seoul. Tensions remain high despite the death of Kim Jong-Il and the emergence of an apparently more open and affable leader, in the substantial shape of his youngest son.
AFP Photo/Jung Yeon-Je
Parsing the North's true intentions from an unparagraphed 2,000-word report by its official KCNA news agency is one of the challenges of the Seoul job. Do they REALLY want to wipe out the "rat-like group of South Korean puppets"? Should I be reaching for the alert key?
It makes good copy. But I and most other correspondents who spent any time here would be happy to settle for the peace the Korean people deserve.