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N. Koreans hope food and shelter come next

June 02, 2007|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA — The way Son Hye Suk sees it, having nuclear weapons means more than security for this Stalinist state. It means North Koreans will have more food on their plates.

"Our nuclear weapons are a source of great pride in our country, and if anyone insults us now they won't survive," said Son, an ideologically vetted worker at the International Friendship Museum north of the capital. "Now that we have our pride, our great political and military power and nuclear weapons, the economic problems can be solved. The first aim of the Dear Leader is to improve the living standards of average people."

The secretive regime led by "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il has signaled a shift in its priorities since its reported nuclear test in October. Early hints were seen in the official New Year's message, in which the ruling Workers' Party announced that it would devote proportionately less of the nation's scarce resources to the military and more to providing apartments, food and clothing for its 23 million long-suffering people.

"It is necessary to bring about a revolutionary turn ... in the efforts to improve living standards," major state-run papers reported in a Jan. 1 editorial, North Korea's equivalent of a State of the Union address. "This is the most important task devolved upon the Korean people at present."

Some South Korean analysts say the April appointment of transport and economic expert Kim Yong Il as premier, replacing Pak Pong Chu, who reportedly was embroiled in a corruption scandal, also may be part of this new direction.

An admittedly limited view from the ground in this tightly controlled country, however, provides little evidence that theory is being translated into reality, although some analysts say just setting out such a goal is an encouraging sign that North Korea might be edging toward a more engaged relationship with the outside world.

"Our country is now building many apartments to solve the housing problem," said Lee Yun Chol, a tour guide. "Until last year the policy was 'Army First.' "

Five days in Pyongyang -- North Korea's capital, showcase city and presumably the first in line to see benefits -- and day trips to the country's north, south and west saw few apartment buildings under construction. All appeared relatively small, capable of housing at most a few hundred people. Some were being built with plaster-coated mud, most at a snail's pace.

At rush hour, lines stretched for blocks as Pyongyang commuters awaited buses and trams, which appeared to run no more frequently than once every 30 minutes. Well after sunset, the lines were still there, long, ghostly snakes of workers patiently queuing in the dark under street lamps switched off to save energy.

Any nod to improved living standards was even more difficult to discern in the countryside, where people could be seen walking for miles, pushing creaky bicycles up hills, moving listlessly across fields, trimming grass along the cracked highway by hand.

Even the military seemed short of transportation: Small groups of soldiers periodically tried to flag down a rare passing vehicle before realizing it was a tourist bus filled with foreigners.

On the clothing front, people in Pyongyang appeared neat and well-dressed. But there was little evidence of liberalization or individuality in the choice of clothing. "Jeans are not so popular in our country," Lee said. "It's not to our people's current liking."

Nor is it exactly clear how Pyongyang plans to go about this supposed emphasis on the concerns of ordinary people.

"There's a lot of talk about more food, housing, consumer goods, but when you say, 'How are you going to do this?' their only response is, 'More discipline,' " said Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the North Korea representative for the United Nations' World Food Program. "That's the extent of their strategy."

Compared with a visit in 2005, however, the inexpensive Chinese goods seeping into the economy appeared more numerous, with low-quality running shoes, toys and tracksuits visible on the shelves of state-owned department stores, in hotels and in the hands of residents on the street.

Another noticeable change was the response of North Koreans to foreigners. Two years ago, people seemed visibly afraid to even acknowledge a visitor's existence. This month, on numerous occasions, children and young adults waved, smiled and showed signs of curiosity.

Even though the regime wrested back some economic control after October 2005 by mandating state distribution of rice and grain, experts say small markets are proliferating. These allow people to buy surplus food produced by farmers, along with consumer goods brought in by ever-adaptive Chinese traders.

This development is not advertised by a regime afraid of even the slightest weakening of its iron grip.

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