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Inside North Korea

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By Donald Kirk

The skyline and traffic patterns of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang were not quite the same during my most recent visit in July as when I was last there four years earlier.

The North Korean void never ceases to startle.

Photography by Don Kirk

View of recently opened high-rise apartment blocks.

While portentous power maneuvers go on in the ruling circles of Pyongyang, you hear far less about them in North Korea than in South Korea. You do, however, get the impression of a regime that’s mired in the past while uneasily facing the future. So it was for me over 12 days in July on what was my ninth visit in 20 years to the world’s most isolated state.

During the dark days of Soviet rule, the inner workings of the regime in Moscow were anything but transparent. Scholars and journalists had to rely on Kremlin watching, studying every statement and deed of government officials in an attempt to divine meaning. It was an inexact science, but in the Soviet era Kremlin watchers could at least watch the Kremlin. In North Korea today, it's nearly impossible even to discover where the government and its new leader, Kim Jong Un, operate.

A visitor to North Korea finds more signs of modernization in Pyongyang as Kim Jong-un consolidates power. But it's hard to tell if reform is afoot in a country that remains deeply impoverished and isolated.
By Donald Kirk, Correspondent / August 1, 2012

A sense of incipient change is in the air here as North Korea's traditional rhetoric about nuclear war contrasts with signs of a desire to reform a society that remains dangerously impoverished, underfed, and undeveloped.

True, over the past few years, Pyongyang has shown signs of modernizing: Eight or nine glistening high-rise apartment buildings form a new skyline in the heart of the capital, and a concert hall opened last month featuring the Pyongyang Symphony Orchestra performing compositions in praise of new leader Kim Jong-un; his grandfather, Kim Il-sung; and his father, Kim Jong-il. Traffic lights are replacing the legendary traffic ladies at key intersections, and taxis with checker designs on the front doors line up outside hotels and restaurants.

Together with visits from high-profile foreigners, the impression is that of a gradual opening, at least for a sliver of the city's elite.

Such signs, however, belie a longstanding commitment to the policy of juche, meaning self-reliance, and, more important, songun, or "military first." The result has been the deification of the Kim dynasty in a system in which the military has held sway while the economy has plunged ever deeper into an abyss of widespread hunger, disease, and neglect.

Hamhung, North Korea's largest industrial center, was opened to foreigners just two years ago. There's no hiding the poverty in the region.HAMHUNG, NORTH KOREA
Our omnipresent guide advises, "This city is not used to foreigners, so please: no pictures."

The quiet streets of Hamhung, North Korea, carry few vehicles. There’s no hiding the poverty of a region where oxen pull carts and most people ride bicycles.

That peremptory order introduces us to North Korea's biggest industrial center, a dreary city of 800,000 near the eastern coast about 100 miles northeast of Pyongyang.
It's not certain, however, if the sensitivity reflects chagrin over the decrepit apartment blocks and the graying industrial zone or concerns about how the locals, who have rarely seen foreigners, will respond.

"This city was opened just two years ago," the guide says, and it's believed to harbor many tales of poverty and starvation from the darkest days of the 1990s famine when 2 million people died throughout the country.

Fertilizer factory proudly displays plaques commemorating visits by Great Leader Kim Il-sung and son and heir Dear Leader Kim Jong-il

By Donald Kirk

MT. KUMKANG, North Korea ― An air of desolation hangs over this fabled resort area four years after a North Korean soldier shot and killed a middle-aged South Korean woman who had made the fatal mistake of wandering outside the tourist route to look at the sunrise over the East Sea.

The great square where hordes of South Korean tourists once gathered excitedly to look at the thriving shops, snack in the cafes and enter the domed theater for a performance by North Korean acrobats is almost deserted.

Dozens of buses rest empty and unused in a nearby parking lot. Tourists arrive in small groups from China, but they don't begin to fill the void left by the killing of a woman who your North Korean guide insists had ignored a warning shot while wandering close to a North Korean military installation.

Nothing, however, can disturb the unparalleled majesty of the soaring granitic peaks and spires of Mt. Kumkang, looming beyond the shopping area, as inviting now as it ever was. In fact, a visitor, arriving on a carefully monitored tour from Pyongyang, finds the hike up to the Kuryong waterfalls more appealing than ever if only because almost no one beside the few others in the group, not to mention the omnipresent minders, are competing for space on the trail.

One of the miracles here is the skill with which authorities control and shield not only their own people but foreign visitors.
At any of the two or three luxury hotels in the North Korean capital, you can eat, drink, buy souvenirs and look forward to another day of gazing on monuments, traipsing through museums and seeing pictures of such sights as the Pueblo, the U.S. Navy surveillance vessel captured off the east coast in 1968 and moored in the Taedong River in the North Korean capital as a museum.
You won't, however, get to meet, much less interview, a soul other than the very few whom your guides - we call them minders - want you to see. And you won't photograph anything those mysterious rule-makers deem embarrassing. In fact, while portentous power maneuvers are no doubt going on, you hear far less about them here than in South Korea.

"Volunteers" scrub the marble before monuments of leaders, Pyongyang