His parents were practising Christians, his grandfather a church elder and he spent 21 of his first 30 years in China - not the childhood expected to produce a dictator who was militantly atheist. The youth of Kim Il-sung is one jigsaw in the puzzle of North Korea, the Paranoid Peninsula, a book about the world's most secretive country, published last month by Zed Books of London. It was written by Paul French, 38, a Briton who lives in Shanghai and is a director of Access Asia, a market research and business intelligence company set up in 1997. 'North Korea will go on indefinitely as it is,' he told the South China Morning Post. 'South Korea does not want unification. It is in the interests of no-one that the regime collapses. 'The Bush administration will not attack it since the cost would be too high, with 85 per cent of North Korea's army close to the demilitarised zone (DMZ). Kim does not have nuclear weapons and knows that the US will not take him out. 'Within the country, there is no focus for opposition - no religion and no alternative or dissident movement. Defectors describe a burnt-out syndrome and high levels of alcoholism. 'The country will survive on remittances from Japan and South Korea, illegal but tolerated free markets and the private plots of farmers. The world will keep the drip-feed going.' French has visited North Korea nine times - between 1997 and last year - as a member of trade delegations and a tourist, most recently joining a Chinese tour group in Dandong. He has been to Pyongyang, Nampo, Sinuiju, Rajin, Mount Kumgang and the DMZ. Tomorrow, the author will be guest speaker at the Foreign Correspondents' Club as part of the activities of the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival. The book was not an easy one to write because the subject is so hostile, he said. The country publishes almost no data, bans private conversation between its people and foreigners and runs its media like the Soviet Union during Stalin's rule. Despite these obstacles, French has done well to collect a wealth of information and present it in an objective way. He had the idea for the book during a visit in 2002, when the country announced sweeping reforms of its wages and prices, which many saw as the first step towards the Chinese model - a strong economy with diverse forms of ownership and keeping a dictatorial political system. But the reforms have failed and life for most of its citizens is as miserable as it was three years ago. 'There is a two-track economy - on one hand, the industrial economy has collapsed and the agricultural system cannot feed its people,' he said. 'On the other, humanitarian aid feeds 40 per cent of the population and provides fertiliser and clothing, and the farmers' market flourishes, run by 'ants', Koreans who bring in goods from China.' The reforms cannot succeed because they contradict Juche (self-reliance), the state ideology since 1963, created by Kim Il-sung and maintained by his son, Kim Jong-il, the current leader. French's book details the creation and development of Juche and how it makes it impossible for North Korea to follow the Chinese model, despite 20 years of persuasion by Beijing, which is eager to make its troublesome neighbour more viable and less dependent. 'Like China, North Korea has a special economic zone (SEZ), in Kaesong, but there is no involvement by North Korean companies,' he said. 'Its only benefit is the wages paid by the South Korean companies to the workers - US$55 a month, double the amount in the rest of the country. In China, foreign firms had to set up joint ventures, which led to shared technology and a learning process.' In China in the 1980s, the government raised the prices of farm products and allowed farmers to cultivate their own land on 30-year leases. The result hurt city residents who had to pay higher food prices - but it raised grain output by 25 per cent between 1978 and 1985. But in North Korea, agriculture remains collectivised - except for household plots - and is short of fuel, fertiliser and pesticide. So high food prices have not had the positive results they did in China. 'The government introduced the reforms, then abdicated the responsibility,' French said. 'By removing subsidies, it became better off and it protected the privileged classes. The rest, 70 per cent of the population, were adversely affected because salaries rose less than prices. 'To fund themselves, managers of state companies are stripping assets. The markets of Dandong are full of Korean timber, scrap metal and old production lines.' One reason for the failure of the reforms is the opposition of the army, one of the privileged classes, which is against the 'concession of territory' as it regards the SEZs in Kaesong and originally Sinuiju, over the border from Dandong, in China's Liaoning province. The Sinuiju plan failed in 2002, after Beijing arrested Yang Bin, the Chinese private entrepreneur Kim Jong-il had picked to run it, and sentenced him to 18 years in prison. French's book describes the structure of society, based on the model of the Soviet Union and Maoist China. The society is divided into three classes - core, wavering and hostile, based on the background of each individual stretching back several generations. Within each class are numerous sub-classes. An individual's class membership defines their rations, education, work, health care, housing and access to goods. North Koreans probably have the least private space of any people on Earth. Portraits of the two Kims hang in every office and household and are on the lapels of each person. The country has 34,000 monuments of Kim Il-sung. In China, you have to repeat the party slogans at meetings at the office - but at least you can tell jokes against politicians over beer with friends and not fear arrest. At the other end of society is the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, who is believed to live a life worthy of an emperor. He has a collection of more than 20,000 videos sent via diplomatic pouches, including Rambo, James Bond , horror films and Hong Kong action movies. He is fascinated by Harley-Davidson motorcycles and is the world's largest private buyer of Hennessy Paradis Cognac, on which he spends about US$700,000 a year. Like Stalin and Mao, he likes to work at night, when he fires off faxes to different ministries. He prefers shark's fin soup, fatty marbled tuna and caviar, and is an avid watcher of foreign news channels. The political elite, military hierarchy and the Kim family all want a continuation of the 'revolutionary' dynasty after his death. The regime's greatest failure was the famines of the late 1990s. French estimates the death toll at between the official figure of 220,000 and up to 3.5 million, with up to 12 per cent of the population in the northeast province of Hamgyong dead. Between 100,000 and 300,000 North Koreans are living illegally in China. Tickets for tomorrow's lunch, from 12.30pm to 2pm, featuring Paul French, are $180, available through the FCC on 2521 1511.