a look at north korea finds country on cusp of change

By Jean H. Lee

associated press

august 3, 2011

Pyongyang, North Korea


A little boy skips along grasping a classmate's hand, his cheeks flushed and a badge of the Great Leader's smiling face pinned to his Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt. Men in military green share a joke over beers at a German-style pub next door to the Juche tower. Schoolgirls wearing the red scarves of the Young Pioneers sway in unison as they sing a classic Korean tune.

Communist North Korea is a world both foreign and familiar, a place where the men wear Mao suits and children tote Mickey Mouse backpacks, where they call one another "comrade" and love their spicy kimchi.

North Korea has come under financial sanctions again for its nuclear defiance and has been condemned for alleged human-rights abuses. It has also turned inward, as Pyongyang maps out a sensitive succession plan for the nation's next leader.

Some things are entirely foreign: the armed soldiers everywhere; the banners and posters painted with hammer, sickle and rifle exhorting people to help build the nation's economy; the sense of paranoia that comes with wondering who's watching or listening to you.

Others are familiar: the tang of cold "raengmyon" noodles; the nursery rhymes children sing on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone; the quick, warm wit that emerges after a few rounds of liquor.

More than 60 years of socialism have not stamped out Korean tradition. Orchestras still play the folk tune "Arirang," along with "The General is Our Father." And children learn about the filial piety of the fabled maiden Sim Chung, not just the feats of their late president.

Much of what is shown is calculated to show the bright side of a nation suffering from chronic economic hardship. North Korea's economy produces an estimated $1,800 per person per annum, according to the U.S. State Department, considerably less than the $30,000 in South Korea. The World Food Program says a quarter of North Korea's 24 million people need food aid to keep from going hungry.

The poverty isn't immediately visible in the modern metropolis of Pyongyang. We are led through gleaming hallways and cavernous, chandeliered lobbies by guides in sparkling gowns or neat military uniforms, speaking as though from a script.

At Kim Il Sung Plaza, a determined young man in a blue suit scoots by on inline skates, his tie carefully pinned to his shirt, as a friend spins circles around him. At a cemetery up on the hill, there is a bride in a billowing, embroidered red Korean gown, a white-and-pink spray of flowers tucked into her hair. Her groom, tall and handsome, wears a red boutonniere affixed to his officer's uniform just beneath his Kim badge.

Outside the concrete jungle of Pyongyang, it's a different scene. The rush-rush pace of the big city comes to a halt, going from skyscrapers and granite monuments to hills denuded of the pine trees that once blanketed the region.

Mountains frame the landscape; in between, every bit of land is furrowed and farmed. There are more oxen than tractors, more manual labor than machinery. Women crouch by a riverbed to wash clothes and draw water from a village well.

North Korea figures large in the Western imagination as a place frozen in a Cold War time warp even as allies Russia and China have embraced capitalism. The government strives to maintain strict control over information — and people — coming in and out of the country. For outsiders granted a visa in a process that can feel as elusive as winning the lottery, the experience often is so stilted that they return home painting a picture of an Orwellian society.

But things are changing, if slowly. Electronic goods are hugely popular, and cellphones jangle everywhere. More than 535,000 people in North Korea now use cellphones, a huge jump from 70,000 in 2009, according to Orascom Telecom, the Cairo-based firm that launched North Korea's 3G network in December 2008. Most can make only domestic calls.

Buildings across Pyongyang are getting a face-lift. Theaters are being refurbished and apartment complexes repainted in pastel pinks and greens. There's more to come: restaurants, a park and "deluxe" twin tower apartments, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. The amusement park near the Arch of Triumph got an overhaul last year, with new rides from Italy and a hall filled with Japanese arcade games.

The common thinking is that North Koreans are shut off from the rest of the world. But Robert Carlin, a former U.S. State Department official who has made dozens of trips to the country, once said it's the opposite: We know less about North Korea than they know about us.

For years, Pyongyang has been subject to international sanctions for illicitly building nuclear bombs and long-range missiles. South Korea, reversing a decade of warming ties, has largely cut off trade and aid, incensed by Pyongyang's nuclear defiance and two attacks that killed 50 South Koreans last year.

The aim may be to isolate Pyongyang, but North Korea has China as its benefactor and protector. So much of North Korea is "made in China" these days or perhaps passed along through China, from the BYD sedans to "Die Hard" DVDs.