North Koreans play miniature golf at a new amusement park in Pyongyang. (David Guttenfelder / Associated…)
DANDONG, China — Every time Kim Kyung Ok takes the bus into North Korea's downtown Pyongyang, she's startled by changes that look positively futuristic in a country that had been stuck in a 1960s time warp.
Women wearing fancy shoes, miniskirts and trousers, fashions popularized by the chic wife of North Korea's not-yet 30-year-old leader. Brand new high-rise apartment buildings, which she's heard have washing machines and refrigerators. People walking down the street yammering into cellphones stuck to their ears.
All things that, for now, at least, seem beyond the reach of the 52-year-old Kim, who, although she counts herself among the privileged as a resident of the North Korean capital, can barely afford to eat rice.
"Of course, they're showing off with their cellphones. Who wouldn't?" she snapped.
The death of leader Kim Jong Il in December and the ascent of his son Kim Jong Un, not to mention a decades-overdue modernization of Pyongyang, have leavened the unremitting gloom that has hung over North Korea since famine killed off nearly 10% of the population in the 1990s.
But North Koreans interviewed recently across the border in China say the changes so far are superficial and have done little to ease the daily task of just staying alive.
"There is more construction, more people building things, more to buy in Pyongyang. But day to day, our life is actually harder," said Kim, who like many North Koreans working outside the country uses a pseudonym.
The price of rice (so important that the word for rice is synonymous with food) has nearly doubled since the beginning of the year, the result of declining foreign aid, a weak harvest and hoarding by speculators.
"Maybe 1 out of 10,000 North Koreans can afford to eat white rice every day like the people in China," said a 58-year-old man from Suncheon, 30 miles north of Pyongyang, who has been working in a brick factory in China.
At North Korea's state-owned factories, wages are so low (often less than $1 per month) that people will pay for the privilege of not showing up to work. They use their time instead to collect firewood or edible greens or to trade something on the market.
As for the vaunted North Korean military, rank-and-file soldiers have so little to eat that their parents have to send money and food for them to survive. Cornfields have to be guarded 24 hours a day to prevent thievery, with many of the culprits being hungry soldiers.
But for ordinary North Koreans, a few small changes have made life easier.
Just one month after Kim Jong Il's death, authorities lifted socialist-style restrictions on the markets that limited the sale of staples and forbade men and younger women from market activity, the rationale being that they ought to be in their factories. In April, regulations on vendors in Pyongyang were eased, allowing for a proliferation of small kiosks selling beverages and snacks.
North Koreans expected an announcement of economic reforms at a special session of the Supreme People's Assembly late last month, perhaps allowing farmers to keep more of their produce. Although nothing was forthcoming, they are still hopeful that the new leader will bring about change.
"People expect reform from him because he is so young," said Park Jeong Suk, a 50-year-old woman from Chongjin, in the far northeast, who said she has been in China since August. "They talk all the time about North Korea needing to open up."
Kim Jong Un has already purged some senior military officials, elevating the ruling Workers' Party above the military in the power hierarchy and moving away from his father's doctrine of "military first." An aid official with extensive experience in North Korea said that during a recent visit to Pyongyang, a senior official told a visiting delegation, "The party and the people together are much stronger than nuclear weapons" and "in order to grow our economy, we need a peaceful atmosphere."
The new leader also appears to be working closely with his uncle, Jang Song Taek, a longtime advocate of liberalization who has traveled widely, even to South Korea.
Pyongyang's face-lift was put in place under the leadership of Kim Jong Il, who timed the new construction for completion in 2012 to mark the centennial of the birth of his father, Kim Il Sung. University students were press-ganged into doing much of the construction work.
The Ryugyong Hotel, a 105-story pyramid that has loomed empty and unfinished over the city for two decades — a national joke — is under construction again. The project is funded by Orascom, an Egyptian telecommunications firm that began cellphone service in North Korea a few years ago.
"Now people can use cellphones to do business and check on prices," said the man from Suncheon.