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North Korea eyes computer software, military hardware

Posted by iMark - 2006-04-14

North Korea unveiled a new economic blueprint this week that sets the impoverished Stalinist state the target of becoming a high-technology powerhouse within two decades.
Military spending remains the biggest budget item and a top priority for North Korea, one of the world's poorest countries that fields the fifth biggest army.

Next comes agriculture and the goal of feeding its people, a target that North Korea has missed every year for more than a decade, during which it has relied on handouts from the outside world.

Adding a new priority, scientific and technological development was adopted Tuesday by North Korea's rubber-stamp legislature as one of the country's top three key national goals for the future.

Choe Thae Bok, chairman of the Supreme People's Assembly, or parliament, called for a long-term strategy to turn the world's most isolated country into a software superpower by 2022.

Choe was speaking during a special session of the parliament in which the 2006 budget was unveiled.

State revenue is expected to rise 7.1 percent while expenditure for the year is expected to be up 3.5 percent from 2005.

Defense spending takes the lion's share at 15.9 percent of the total, so as to "thoroughly implement the party's policy to put all the people under arms and convert the whole country into a fortress," according to Vice-Premier of the Cabinet Ro Tu Chol, who delivered a report at the session.

But high-tech is clearly the new priority in North Korea and software development seen as a potential market.

"It is urgent to build a nationwide information network and develop programming technology rapidly and thus turn our country into a power in software development," Choe said in a speech published by the official Korean Central News Agency.

He urged North Koreans to create "a social habit and tendency whereby everyone works hard to learn science and technology and become a scientist and a technician."

North Korea launched a five-year campaign to elevate computer technology in 2003 after leader Kim Jong-Il declared the 21st century the era of the IT revolution.

North Korea's IT industry is still in its infancy. A small number of North Koreans have computers at home, with only selected people in the leadership allowed direct access to the Internet.

Choe, however, said North Korea had to move fast to seize on the potential of high technology.

"We are faced with the important tasks to develop ultra-modern science and technology rapidly, put the nation's science and technology on an advanced, high level in a short span of time by our own efforts in reliance on the existing foundations and potentials."

The drive to develop the IT industry comes amid a tense stand-off with the outside world over its nuclear weapons drive which has complicated Pyongyang's efforts to recover from near economic collapse.

Outside experts agree North Korea has made tangible progress since a decade ago when the entire country was in the grip of a famine.

At Tuesday's meeting, Premier Pak Pong-Ju said the government would bring a "radical" turn in attaching importance to science and technology this year while holding fast to the principle of giving top priority to the increase of military capabilities.

Park conceded the tasks facing the country "are vast and difficulties and ordeals are still lying in the way of its activities this year."

One of this year's main economic tasks is to "fully solve the food problem," he said.

North Korea took reform measures in 2002, freeing prices, wages and exchange rates from central control. It has also eased government controls over businesses and individuals.

However, the reforms failed to improve living standards, while a drop in food aid from the international community has resulted in a severe food shortage.

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