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Sifting through the golf sands for a hint of North Korea's future

In this undated file photo released on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010 by Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's son Kim Jong Un, front row center, poses with Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army Ri Yong Ho, front row far right, Defense Chief Kim Yong Chun, front row second from right, and North Korean soldiers who participated in a coordinated drill of a military unit of the Korean People's Army at an undisclosed location in North Korea.

AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service, FILE/AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service, FILE

In keeping with his orderly ascension from ranking army general to top political official to supreme leader of the last hard-line Communist country on earth, North Korea's chubby young Kim Jong-un is expected soon to take up golf, where he will challenge his father's record of scoring almost a dozen holes-in-one on his first try at the game.

Afforded little else in the way of information on the internal doings of the secretive country, observers will be reduced to parsing news of the young leader's score, speculating on what it might mean should he fail to match his father's 38-under-par.

Such is the fantasy scenario of North Korea's notorious – often ludicrous – propaganda machine, which is operating at full throttle after the death of the country's last demigod ruler. Observers question whether the regime can maintain the barrage of lies big and little it has used for so long to mislead and repress its citizens.

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In particular, they wonder how long it will be before the flood of information loosened by the digital revolution, which helped destabilize and wash away repressive regimes throughout the Middle East this year, finally leaks through slowly widening cracks in the Kimchi Curtain.

The regime has "boxed itself in" with the extravagance of its lies, according to Hartmuth Kroll, a retired Canadian diplomat familiar with the region. By insisting for decades that the country is isolated because other nations are jealous of its success – and that however hard life becomes, it is always worse beyond the border – North Korea has courted a sharp reckoning.

"They're riding a tiger," Mr. Kroll said. "The more that people find out about the rest of the world, the more dangerous it becomes for the regime."

But so far, the North Korean regime has proven adept at keeping citizens in the dark. South Korea is the most wired nation in the world, according to Paul Evans, director of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, whereas North Korea is the least. Information in and out is rigorously controlled, and citizens face severe punishment for as little as watching South Korean soap operas on smuggled flash drives – "illegal and ubiquitous," according to one expert.

"North Korea is not like anywhere else in Asia or the world," Prof. Evans said. "This is a neo-feudal system with theocratic overtones that makes us think of the 16th century, not the 21st."

Although many observers cite the recent appearance of a mobile-phone network in North Korea as evidence of potential opening, calls can only be made inside the country and handsets are confined to a loyal elite. Online social networks do not exist. To get news of the outside world, according to U.S. human-rights activist David Hawk, North Koreans must make a risky trip to the Chinese border, where smugglers rent them phones that operate on the neighbouring country's network. "But it's illegal and dangerous because the police are actively trying to suppress it," he said.

To get news into the country, the South Korean government and sanctioned groups until recently floated information-loaded helium balloons over the demilitarized zone.

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Some observers predict the North Korean information barrier will soon fall. "There are holes in it that are big and are growing," Mr. Hawk said. "The propaganda is breaking down."

But others aren't so sure. "It's not to suggest that there aren't really powerful forces out there, but it's like water hitting rocks," Prof. Evans said. "North Korea is sui generis."

Canadian North Korea watcher and former Pyongyang resident Erich Weingartner, editor of the CanKor website, shares that skepticism. He questions how long the regime can maintain its outrageous propaganda – "I doubt they're clever enough to change their ways," Mr. Weingartner said – but bits and pieces of actual information floating over the border in novel ways "is a long way off from changing the mentality of the population."

North Korean children are institutionalized at a very early age and force-fed the pseudo-mythological history of the Kim dynasty, according to Mr. Weingartner. Throughout the rest of their lives their behaviour is monitored by informants in their neighbourhoods and at work. He doubts that many would cheer if foreign troops ever attempted to "liberate" them.

"There's still a lot of people who regard at least Kim Il-sung as a god figure, even if they are less happy about Kim Jong-il and the new guy," he said.

In that, they're not as silly as they may seem, according to Prof. Evans. "We've just gone through a Christmas season of virgin births and stars travelling across the sky," he said, explaining the miraculous nature of North Korean history as a function of the first Kim's education in the hands of Christian missionaries. "That hyper-religiosity is built into the philosophy of the ruling elite in North Korea," he said.

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Do the North Korean people actually believe it?

"Do people in the West believe in transubstantiation?" Prof. Evans asked in reply. "Do they believe in the devil?"

Myths are sturdy things, in other words. And although miracles do happen, they are more likely to come in the form of golf scores than an Arab-style awakening in North Korea this spring.

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