Pyongyang glitters but most of NKorea still dark

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 29, 2013 at 3:30 am •  Published: April 29, 2013
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But not everyone lives in such relative comfort as the Kims, whose home government officials are willing to show off. There are stark signs of poverty across the country. A mother huddles over a child as she sits shivering by the side of the road. Barefoot boys in a village destroyed by floods scamper about dressed in little more than underwear. Sharp shoulders and splotchy faces betray the gnawing hunger of young soldiers.

Beyond the paved, pocked highways that radiate from Pyongyang, there are few roads between the denuded mountains, just dirt paths that become dangerously muddy with rainfall and treacherously slippery in winter. Villagers struggle to clear snow with makeshift shovels crafted out of planks of wood.

Private cars are a rarity outside the capital, and gasoline is scarce. In Hamhung, North Korea's second-largest city, soldiers cram into the backs of trucks powered by wood-burning stoves that send smoke billowing behind them.

Goods are strapped to the back of bicycles, from firewood to dead pigs. Old men sit crouched by the side of the road with bike pumps, offering to fix flats. Oxen, and people, plod past pulling carts.

The closest most may get to the capital in their lifetime is by seeing it on state TV. For them, Pyongyang would truly seem like a fairyland.

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Life in the North Korean countryside would be familiar to South Koreans old enough to recall the poverty in their nation just after the Korean War. Indeed, into the 1970s, North Korea was the richer of the two Koreas.

Today, newly affluent South Korea has the world's 15th-largest economy. In North Korea, meanwhile, two-thirds of people struggle to find their daily meal, according to the World Food Program.

North Koreans acknowledge the devastating economic loss of the Soviet safety net in the early 1990s. But they blame the county's growing international isolation on the U.S., its Korean War foe, which has led efforts to punish North Korea for developing its nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang instead has turned to fledgling trade with companies in China, Singapore, Indonesia, Italy, Egypt and elsewhere. These joint ventures keep the shelves in the capital stocked with goods, computer labs filled with PCs, streets crowded with VWs, in spite of sanctions.

For years, foreign goods and customs were regarded with practiced suspicion, even as they were secretly coveted. Kim Jong Un has addressed that curiosity by encouraging trade and by quoting his father in saying North Korea is "looking out onto the world" — a country that must become familiar with international customs even if it continues to prefer its own.

Kim has not made it significantly easier for North Koreans to travel, channel surf or read travelogues posted online, but he is arranging to bring the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben to them in the form of a miniature world park slated to open later this year.

The flow of cash and goods has created a burgeoning middle class in the capital. Pyongyang now has a parade of fashionistas in eye-popping belted jackets, sparkly barrettes clipped to their hair, fingernails painted with a clear gloss. At one European-style restaurant last week, a young couple on a date sipped cocktails topped off with Maraschino cherries and feasted on pizza, their cellphones laid on the table.

At one beauty salon, the rage is for short cuts made popular by singers from the all-girl military Moranbong band who have jazzed up North Korea's staid performance scene with their bobbed hair, little black dresses and electric guitars.

"There are so many young women asking to get their hair done like them," hairstylist Chae Cho Yong said.

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While the differences between the showcase capital and the hardscrabble countryside are growing starker, one thing remains the same: the authoritarian rule and the intricate web of laws governing life in the Stalinist state.

Even as they laugh, North Koreans calibrate their words. Criticism of the state and leadership is not only taboo but dangerous; when asked for their opinion, most people parrot phrases they've heard in state media, still the safest way to answer questions in a country where state security remains tight and terrifying.

Very few have access to the Internet, cable TV, international phone lines. It's still illegal for them to interact without permission with foreigners, who are kept on a tight leash and discouraged from making impromptu visits to homes, shops, restaurants and offices.

Around Chae, the cavernous barber shop was empty, not a single customer in the brand new swivel seats.

An employee explained that most North Koreans are at weekly ideology study sessions on Saturdays, the only day of the week foreigners are allowed inside.

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Follow AP's bureau chief for Pyongyang and Seoul at www.twitter.com/newsjean.