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North Korea's progress seems to be more style than substance

Despite new construction, fashions and items to buy, 'Day to day, our life is actually harder,' says one North Korean, who struggles to get enough to eat.

October 14, 2012|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times

In contrast to the Stalinist concrete blocks, Pyongyang's new apartment buildings have modernist curved facades and are illuminated at night in geometric patterns. There is a new airport terminal, a "Dolphinarium" at the amusement park and an upscale Singapore-funded restaurant and department store. In front of the Pyongyang train station, a large digital screen displays North Korean television.

"It all looks new and shiny and beautiful in a country that is so poor," said Jerrold Green, president of the Los Angeles-based Pacific Council on International Policy, who led a delegation to Pyongyang six weeks ago. He warned, however, against excessive optimism, comparing the transition in North Korea to Syria in 2000, when Bashar Assad succeeded his father.

"We heard almost exactly the same. 'He speaks English, he went to school abroad, his wife dresses beautifully, so this must mean change,'" Green said. "And you can see what happened."

And there are plenty of signs that life hasn't changed much for the vast majority of North Koreans.

Outside of the relative privilege of Pyongyang, the North Koreans said, it is still common for people to die of starvation, albeit not at the same rate as during the famine of the 1990s.

Park said that from January through May of this year she'd seen three elderly women out on the streets who appeared to be dead.

"Young people have a hard time surviving themselves, so sometimes they have to kick the old people out of the house," Park said.

The North Koreans all described widespread dissatisfaction with the late Kim Jong Il, whom they saw as opposed to economic reform.

"Many people didn't like him so much because their lives were so hard under his rule," said Park, speaking in a low, urgent voice.

"When Kim Il Sung died, we felt like the world had ended and we couldn't go on living. We cried desperately," said Kim Kyung Ok, the woman from Pyongyang, referring to the dynasty's founder, who died in 1994. "I cried too for Kim Jong Il, but to be honest, not so much."

Kim counts herself among North Korea's privileged by virtue of her residency in Pyongyang, although she, like others, barely eats rice and has to supplement her diet with wild greens. She is a surprisingly elegant woman with delicate skin like creased linen and thick, curly black hair that she ties back at the nape of her neck in a classically demure North Korean style. She is 5 foot 3, relatively tall for a woman of her generation, and taller than either of her adult sons, who she says were stunted by a hungry childhood.

Her older son, 25, was recently discharged from the military because of malnutrition and is recuperating at home. "A meal was usually just three potatoes," she said.

Kim begins her day at 5 a.m., when she hikes out into the mountains to look for edible greens to feed her pigs. The tastier pickings she marinates or stir-fries for her family.

During the day, she produces alcohol out of corn and acorns, using the dregs from the process to feed the pigs.

"You have to have two or three businesses going on to survive," she said. Her younger son, 20, paid $3 per month not to go to his factory job so he is able to help her during the day.

Their workday extends well after midnight, as somebody in the family needs to keep watch over the pigs. Bands of hungry soldiers often come between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.

For all that effort, Kim's family never gets to eat pork, which is too valuable. They trade it instead for rice and corn, occasionally killing a rabbit if they need to add meat to their diet.

Like many North Koreans, Kim says she is still trying to recover from the government's decision in 2009 to introduce a new currency, invalidating the old and wiping out the life savings of much of the population.

"People had heart attacks from the shock. Many people died," Kim said, adding that she lost 5 million Korean won, then worth nearly $1,500.

"I was saving money for my older son to get married. I thought I could buy him an apartment," Kim said.

Now her ambitions are more modest: She wants to buy her sons a camera and a cellphone.

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