North Korea — Girls’ soccer teams waged a fierce battle outside a huge gymnasium. Two young brides, one resplendent in a white gown and the other in deep pink, married sweethearts in a snowy square. Parents pulled toddlers on plastic sleds. Pedestrians lined up at kiosks to buy baked sweet potatoes and pancakes.
A six-day visit to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, that ended last Tuesday offered carefully monitored glimpses of a land where reality and fantasy are routinely conflated. While there were no obvious signs of impending collapse or political intrigue swirling around the fate of North Korea’s ailing leader, the visit offered hints of why the North might be particularly eager now to resume international aid and trade.
For nearly four years, an unrelenting barrage of government propaganda has promised that North Korea will be strong and prosperous by 2012, the centennial of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder and the father of the current leader, Kim Jong-il.
That is now 18 months away. And prosperous is the last word one would use to describe North Korea’s shuttered factories, skimpy harvests and stunted children.
Perhaps with that deadline in mind, North Korea’s leaders last week made what might be a bid to reduce their isolation. They offered concessions that could help open up and limit the country’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear program.
And after promising to retaliate militarily should South Korea renew artillery drills near disputed waters, they have reacted — so far — only with words. But North Korea has made conciliatory gestures before, to extract aid at times of economic need or political transition, only to turn hostile later.
Of the nation’s 24 million citizens, the three million in Pyongyang are the most privileged. North Koreans need a special permit to live or come here. Still, signs of hardship are evident.
Commuters crammed into decrepit electric buses, packed as tightly as boxes of toothpicks. Pedestrians bowed beneath huge bundles strapped to their backs, apparently stuffed with goods for trade in private markets that have eclipsed the ill-supplied state stores. Most were women; one collapsed on the sidewalk under the weight of her load.
Economists say coal production is, at best, half that of two decades ago, and Pyongyang has regular power shortages. At the elite Foreign Language Revolution School, students warmed themselves around stoves fed by coal or wood. In much of the city, residents report only a few hours of electricity daily.
New apartment buildings — apparently for officials — grace the city center. But the pyramid-shaped, 105-story Ryugyong Hotel remains a shell nearly 25 years after construction began. While it was recently sheathed in glass, other abandoned construction projects scar roads outside the city.
Elsewhere, especially in northern provinces, residents report that child beggars haunt street markets, families scavenge hillsides for sprouts and mushrooms and workers at state enterprises receive nominal salaries, at best. Workers in Pyongyang are said to be much better compensated.
Signs of that relative good fortune were evident on Pyongyang’s streets. Some pedestrians chatted on cellphones, something unknown just two years ago. Koryolink, a cellphone network controlled by an Egyptian firm, has 310,000 North Korean subscribers. North Koreans can call only one another, but the network is expanding fast. Residents report more cars and traffic lights than three years ago, although traffic remains sparse.
Most pedestrians appeared well fed. Although malnutrition has improved in the past decade, one in three North Korean children is stunted, and nearly one in five is underweight, according to the World Food Program. Residents of the Pyongyang area are the nation’s best nourished.
North Korea’s isolation is striking from the moment of arrival at Pyongyang’s utilitarian airport. With a 40-plane, primarily Russian-made fleet, Air Koryo schedules just two daily outbound flights, to Beijing and to Vladivostok in far eastern Russia. Although visitors were allowed to bring laptops, inspectors immediately confiscated cellphones.
Journalists are rarely granted visas to North Korea, one of the world’s most secretive and militaristic societies. The government allowed two journalists to accompany Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a former ambassador to the United Nations, on a private mission to meet senior officials in Pyongyang.
¶ Mr. Richardson sought to reduce the threat of conflict between North and South Korea and to persuade the North to abandon its aggressive behavior if it wants outside assistance.
Visiting Pyongyang as an outsider is a bit like entering a parallel reality. Official escorts stuck to visitors like Velcro. The rules were clear: No interviews without permission. No exploring beyond the hotel parking lot.
Everyone was closely watched, with tactics reminiscent of a bad cold war spy movie. Opposite a journalist’s spacious room at the mostly empty Potonggang Hotel, men with briefcases left keys dangling in doors and appeared to rotate shifts. Other guests warned that dining room tables were bugged and that a dark, out-of-place wall panel was in fact a two-way mirror. Calls from the United States were blocked. Outgoing overseas calls cost $8.27 a minute.
Some events seemed obviously staged. On a dazzlingly sunny Saturday, a crowd packed the auditorium of Pyongyang’s ornate central library for a lecture on the life of Kim Jong-il’s mother. Nearly every seat in the reading room was also taken. When one reader nodded off, a watchful monitor quickly poked him.
But the Foreign Ministry also showed surprising flexibility at times, allowing visits to the foreign language school, a crowded subway station and a silk-thread factory. Long-time visitors say they see a growing openness to journalists.
State stores were off limits, either because barren shelves hinted at economic difficulties or because only lucky government-coupon holders could take advantage of their artificially low prices. Window-shopping only, journalists were warned.
Better-stocked but costlier private markets were also out of bounds. Hundreds have sprung up nationwide, but officials play down their importance because they flout the socialist credo.
One, the huge, arch-roofed Unification Market in Pyongyang, sports row after row of stalls. Merchants say three-fourths of the wares come from China.
With paltry harvests, inflation of food prices is a chronic problem. Last month, the World Food Program reported that at that market a kilogram of rice, or 2.2 pounds, cost $10, about 10 times the price in Beijing. By the agency’s rough estimates, a typical household’s income would allow one person to eat two and a half cups of rice a day, assuming he had no other expenses.
North Koreans pride themselves on juche, or self-reliance, and government officials greeted Mr. Richardson with declarations of a thriving society.
“Everything is going well,” Vice President Kim Yong-dae assured the governor before reporters were shooed out of a meeting. “Thanks to our powerful military deterrence,” he said, “we can now concentrate on development” and achieve prosperity by 2012.
But privately, Mr. Richardson said, officials acknowledge that the country is desperate for fuel, food and an easing of economic sanctions imposed after North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, beginning roughly five years ago. Some North Korea analysts warn that unless aid and trade resume, the North may raise cash by selling nuclear technology and materials to Iran, Syria or others — if it has not already.
Interviews in the past six months with nearly 20 North Koreans who recently left for China, including several Communist Party members, suggest that faith in the leadership’s economic policies is shaken, if not lost. North Koreans know well that South Koreans live much better, while their own government demands constant sacrifice.
A few criticize the military’s pre-eminence, and hope that Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son and chosen successor, will shift policy. “I heard a rumor that he said we have more bullets than food. So maybe he will be a good leader and feed the people,” one 59-year-old North Korean trader said, hopefully, in an interview last month in China.
But most seemed to support Kim Jong-il’s 15-year-old “military-first” policies. They regard the United States as an implacable enemy and South Korea as an American tool, barred by Washington from uniting with the North. They insist that Japan’s 35-year occupation of the peninsula, followed by the Korean War, proves the need for an invincible defense.
Billboards, patriotic songs, newspapers and movies continually reinforce that message. Every North Korean man spends up to 10 years in the military. Soldiers were spotted helping out at a Pyongyang construction site and heading through a nearby village toting shovels as a loudspeaker mounted on a tree blared patriotic messages.
“Even if we don’t eat, we give the military everything we can,” said a former humanities professor from the northern city of Chongjin, who now works as a maid in China but plans to return home. “Nuclear weapons mean we cannot be invaded. I really want to say that. We cannot be touched.”
At one Pyongyang subway stop, called Prosperity Station, commuters read news on the threat of military conflict with South Korea from newspaper pages posted on a stand-up carousel. “We want peace,” one man declared passionately. “But we are not afraid of war. We are ready for anything.”
Such statements aside, he and other residents were surprisingly friendly to journalists. So were government escorts. The six-day visit ended with a cognac-fueled celebration in the hotel’s karaoke bar in which the North Koreans belted out “You Are My Destiny” and Korean love songs.
The days were marked by odes to Kim Jong-il. Choi Hyok, 43, the rail-thin chief engineer at the Kim Jong-suk Silk Factory, which is named after the chairman’s mother, recalled Kim Jong-il’s visit in January 2009. “I felt like I had come out of the darkness and into the light,” he said.
Nam Dae-yong, 20, a geology student at Kim Il-sung University, marveled at 2,000 new desktop computers installed in April. “This is a very good present from Chairman Kim Jong-il,” she said.
The university is a showpiece. So is the silk factory, with its well-oiled machinery and 2,000 women at work in blue, pink and green scarves. Economists estimate that three of four North Korean factories are idle, lacking power and materials.
“Everyone knows the environment,” the former humanities professor said of her university in Chongjin. “No electricity, no light, no heat. The government doesn’t give anything, so we have to ask the parents for money.”
“People talk a lot about 2012, how we will become a strong and prosperous country,” one 45-year-old trader from Hwanghae Province told the advocacy group Human Rights Watch last month. “If we find a gold mine, yes, I guess it would happen.”