SHANGHAI (Reuters) - North Korea, Sudan, Iran, Myanmar, Zimbabwe are not normally countries associated with booming economies or viewed favorably by many, especially in the West, on the world stage.
But they all have close ties with China, and have made every effort to put on a good show at the just opened Shanghai Expo, an expensive event being held in China’s commercial hub over the next six months.
North Korea and Iran, memorably linked by former U.S. President George W. Bush as part of an “axis of evil,” even have their national “pavilions” right next to each other.
North Korea, whose nuclear weapons program has strained ties with China, its only real ally, is taking as its theme “Paradise for the People,” brushing aside the power cuts and food shortages which have afflicted the isolated nation.
North Korean official Lee Song-un told China’s Xinhua news agency in March that this was the first time the country had attended an Expo, choosing China’s financial hub and most cosmopolitan and richest city to do so.
“The pavilion will show off the ‘garden city’ of Pyongyang, and reflect the characteristic style of the North Korean people’s spirit in building a powerful and prosperous country,” Lee said.
North Korea’s number two leader, Kim Yong-nam, turned up in person for the Expo’s dazzling opening ceremony.
It is not clear how North Korea, whose economy is in tatters and subject to tough international sanctions, has paid for the building, decorated with a large national flag on the outside and a replica of Pyongyang’s Juche Tower inside.
Pictures and film inside show happy people ice skating and otherwise enjoying themselves.
There is an advertisement for a North Korean restaurant in Shanghai, and a stall selling souvenirs, including stamps, DVDs and children’s books in English with titles such as “Boys Wipe Out Bandits.”
“The North Korea pavilion feels oppressive inside. I’m not sure why,” said Liu Hongqiao, a visitor from Shanghai’s neighboring province of Zhejiang.
“Maybe because their staff are all wearing Kim Il-sung badges, or because of their political system,” she added, referring to the North’s former leader and state founder.
It’s not just controversial countries which are getting their day in the sun in Shanghai.
All of China’s provinces and regions have pavilions, including Xinjiang, the restive home of the Uighur people which erupted in ethnic violence last year, leaving at least 200 dead and where Beijing says al Qaeda influences separatist groups.
Their pavilion’s theme is “Xinjiang is a nice place,” with exhibitions showing “the generosity and cheerfulness of Xinjiang people.”
There is also Tibet, another restless part of the country.
“(The) Tibet Pavilion displays the unique charms of Tibetan culture, Tibetan people’s patriotism, resolution to make progress, and aspiration for well-off life, peace and harmony,” the official Expo website (www.expo2010.cn) says.
Don’t expect any mentions of their exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, a man condemned by Beijing as a separatist.
The London-based Free Tibet campaign is calling on foreign visitors to boycott the Tibet pavilion.
“Any visit to the Tibet Pavilion by a foreign visitor to Shanghai Expo constitutes a tacit endorsement of China’s policies in Tibet of arbitrary detention, torture, disappearances, patriotic re-education and the occupation of Tibet,” said Free Tibet’s director, Stephanie Brigden.
The participation of Taiwan, the self-ruled island China claims as its own, at the Expo has largely avoided controversy, despite its pavilion being located close to those of Chinese provinces, a potential red rag to Taiwan independence supporters.
Still, some of the few nations with which Taiwan still maintains formal diplomatic relations, including Panama, Honduras, Haiti and tiny Tuvalu, are represented at the event, despite their absence of formal ties with China.
Additional reporting by Rujun Shen; Editing by Ron Popeski