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This Birthday May Be a Real Blast : North Korea: Kim Il Sung turns 80, and tradition dictates a lavish gift--perhaps completion of his nuclear bomb.

<i> Gabriel Schoenfeld is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington</i>

CIA Director Robert Gates recently warned in testimony before Congress that North Korea might be only months away from producing a nuclear weapon. April 15 is the 80th birthday of North Korea’s “Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung. On previous birthdays ending in round numbers or in fives, the Great Leader has been the recipient of some lavish presents. Perhaps this year he will receive a nuclear bomb.

A decade ago, the North Korean people gave their Great Leader the Tower of the Juche Idea as a birthday present. The tower, which is officially considered a “great monument of our era,” honors the Great Leader’s contribution to--and improvements on--Marxism, as embodied in his juche philosophy. Situated in the heart of the capital city, Pyongyang, the structure is taller than the Washington Monument and is composed of 70 tiers, one for each “of the meaningful days of the Great Leader’s 70 years.” It is capped by an enormous red glass torch that “spreads the rays of juche " across the skyline.

This year, the only building on the Pyongyang skyline that might have qualified as a suitable birthday present is the pyramid-shaped 105-story Hotel Ryugyong, the tallest hotel in the world. The concrete skeleton of the building is complete, but work on the project has ceased. The official explanation: To allocate more resources for housing the masses, the Great Leader and his son, the Dear Leader, decided to postpone finishing the hotel. Rumors circulate among the foreign diplomats based in Pyongyang. They say that the foundation has settled unevenly and the 105-story hull is beyond repair. The government is said to have offered $150 million to a foreign firm to correct the damage, but no bidders will take on the project for less than $600 million.

Whatever gift is given this year--atom bomb or hotel--the Great Leader’s birthday party will in all likelihood be attended by the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. The Dear Leader was recently elevated to the posts of supreme military commander and foreign minister, and he reportedly serves as acting chief executive, responsible for day-to-day management in all areas of government.

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The Dear Leader seldom makes public appearances so the world knows little about him apart from his passion for film, but he is rumored to be dissolute and possibly deranged. He is reported to have a collection of 20,000 films. This information comes from two South Korean filmmakers whom the Dear Leader arranged to have kidnaped in 1976. He kept them in captivity for a decade and compelled them to make films for him until they escaped in 1986. Apart from collecting films and filmmakers, the Dear Leader has also written a penetrating book of film criticism titled “Let Us Create More Revolutionary Films Based on Socialist Life.”

A good film, the Dear Leader argues in his book, should help in “revolutionizing and working-classizing the people, and must supply correct answers to them.” The Dear Leader highly recommends such North Korean film classics as “The Red Agitator,” “The Girl Barber” and “The Flourishing Village.”

Because of its flaws, he writes, the lessons that can be learned from the film “When We Pick Apples” are particularly worthy of attention. The heroine “worries about the country’s economic life” and is shown “grieving at the sight of rotten apples.” This is correct. But when she sees that some people “suffer from ideological imperfections,” her only response is to offer “a few words of lukewarm advice.” This is incorrect. The task of the filmmaker is to “expose and sharply criticize all negative practices in the work and life of the people, even though they may be trifling ones.”

The North Korean film industry may soon have to make many more films exhorting the population to work harder at socialist construction. The North’s subsistence economy is a wreck, and revolution in the Soviet Union has made a bad thing worse. Pyongyang’s trade with Russia and the other former Soviet republics--on a hard currency basis since Jan. 1, 1991--has been on a steep downward curve.

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“Owing to the cunning and shameless acts of the imperialists to realize their wild dream for world supremacy,” says the Great Leader, “the people’s socialist cause is facing a grave challenge.” Part of that grave challenge involves providing food for the masses. This has become so difficult that the authorities have had to promulgate a new slogan: “Let us eat two meals a day.” Even with the masses fasting, the North was recently compelled to import rice from the imperialist puppets in South Korea.

However poor North Korea’s economic performance, its totalitarian political system seems healthy enough. There is no known samizdat, no dissent, no heavy-metal music, no sign of a political crack. Given his advanced age, the Great Leader’s final birthday party may be drawing near. When his body is put on display in the monumental mausoleum that is certain to be built, his perfect society may unravel with breathtaking speed. But perhaps it will not. The world may find itself living with, if not loving, a country ruled by a mad film critic armed with a nuclear bomb.


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