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Inside North Korea, more cellphones and traffic lights, but real change lags

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 KirkCorrespondent / August 1, 2012

A North Korean sailor stands on the deck of the USS Pueblo, the US spy ship captured off North Korea in 1968. It’s now moored in Pyongyang.

Don Kirk

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Pyongyang, North Korea

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.

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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.

"We have nuclear weapons," boasts a North Korean Army captain at Panmunjom, the site of the signing of the Korean War armistice in 1953 along the line between North and South Korea. "They guarantee that we will be safe from nations far away from Korea. We Ko-reans never invade anyone, but we have strong capabilities."

Now outsiders are scrutinizing Kim Jong-un for any glimmer that he may be opening the country. Yet the veneration of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il is so total that it's not clear if Kim Jong-un, believed to be still in his late 20s with no previous experience in governance, can or even wants to reverse the pattern his grandfather and father set before him.

A visit to the North

Life may be marginally more open here than a few years ago, but visitors aren't permitted to talk with ordinary people or walk into stores or markets to see if the shelves are as empty as they appear from quick looks through the windows.

New statues of Kim Il-sung, who ruled for nearly half a century until his death in 1994, and his son and heir, Kim Jong-il, who died last December, stand tall over Mansudae, a promontory with a sweeping view of much of the city. Korean and foreign visitors line up in front of them to pay respect; one or two bow and place flowers at the bronze feet.

In the end, a visit here turns into a game in which authorities keep watch over foreigners with the same consummate skill they show in controlling their own people.

At any of the two or three hotels where foreigners are consigned, they can eat, drink, and buy souvenirs when not gazing at monuments, traipsing through museums, and seeing such sights as the Pueblo, the US Navy spy ship captured off the east coast in 1968 and moored here on the Daedong River.

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