Seoul (UPI) Oct 19, 2005
When North Korea introduced a gala gymnastic show called the Arirang Festival in August, many Pyongyang-watchers in Seoul considered it a political exercise aimed at tightening the state's control over North Koreans amid strong international pressure on the nation's nuclear weapons program and human rights record.
North Korea's media said the event was organized to mark the 60th founding anniversary of the country's ruling Workers' Party on Oct. 10. The 90-minute show features some 100,000 performers, with synchronized acrobatics on the pitch, and the display of various card-flipping images in the stand.
With the festival running every day for two months, however, it was found to have two more goals -- earning much-needed cash and rallying North Korean sympathizers in rival South Korea. And the move seems to have paid off.
The reclusive communist state opened its doors to South Koreans for the nightly performances on Aug. 16. South Koreans were brought in on special charter flights. North Korea also allowed U.S. tourists to visit Pyongyang for the first time since 2002 to watch the show.
Tens of thousands of North Korean citizens watch the show each night at the May Day Stadium. North Korea provided special "Arirang trains" to take residents from remote areas to the show upon the order of their "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, according to the North's media, adding that 3 million people, some 10 percent of North Korea's 23 million population, would enjoy the festival.
But foreigners pay some $300 each for a tour package for the Arirang show. South Korean visitors pay some $1,500 for a two-day package that includes flights and a night in a hotel.
Seoul's Unification Ministry said some 6,800 South Koreans had traveled to Pyongyang for the festival as of Oct. 17.
Upbeat about the South Koreans' rush to the festival, North Korea decided to extend the show to the end of this month, according to sources close to the North. The show was originally scheduled to close Oct. 15, but the North extended the performance by 10 days earlier this month.
The Unification Ministry expects a total of 7,200 South Koreans to visit North Korea by the end of October.
Officials and analysts say North Korea can earn more than $20 million from the Arirang show. When North Korea held the first Arirang festival in 2002 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the birth of its late founder, Kim Il Sung, it earned $19 million from the four-month performance.
Many South Korean tourists have bought compact discs featuring the Arirang show and other expensive souvenirs to mark the rare visit to their communist neighbor. They tried to bring back books and other propaganda items without permission from the South, customs officials said.
South Korean law states tourists should obtain permits from the Unification Ministry to bring in books, compact discs and similar items from the North. The law reflects South Korea's attempt to thwart the spread of communist material in the nation.
Books that have been brought back are about the North's founding leader, Kim Il Sung, and his son and current leader, Kim Jong Il, according to the customs office.
The retuning visitors, mostly pro-unification activists, have strongly protested seizure of the North Korean material and have caused trouble at the airport, the office said.
The unprecedented mass visit to North Korea has caused controversy as the South Korean visitors include dissidents convicted of working as North Korean spies during and after the 1950-53 Korean War.
The South's conservative Grand National Party and anti-communist civic groups denounced the Unification Ministry's approval of travel permits for the dissidents.
Analysts say the mass trip to the North could promote cross-border exchanges, but warned it may be used by the North's political machine to rally North Korean sympathizers in South Korea.
South Korea has already been hit with an ideological dispute over how to handle a leftist scholar currently facing legal punishment for his alleged glorification of North Korea, a violation of the country's draconian security law.
Activists from anti-communist groups and those who are pro-unification have clashed over the fate of Kang Jeong-ku, a sociology professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, who is being investigated by prosecutors for allegedly violating the anti-communist security law.
The GNP declared itself to be in complete opposition to the Roh Moo-hyun government, saying its stance toward North Korea was undermining the foundations of South Korea's anti-communist national identity. The party also urged Roh to fire his justice minister for ordering the prosecution not to detain Kang.
In response, Roh's office accused the opposition party of reviving the ultra-rightist Cold War regime for political gains ahead of parliamentary by-elections in late October.
Inter-Korean ties improved significantly after a 2000 summit, but the rivals have yet to come up with any substantial measures to reduce military tensions on the world's last Cold War frontier.
More than 50 years after the end of 1950-53 Korean War, the two Koreas remain in a technical state of war, as the three-year conflict ended in an armistice agreement and not a peace treaty. Their border is the world's last Cold War flashpoint, with nearly 2 million troops on either side.
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