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.
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Foreigners don't, however, get to chat up anyone other than the few whom the government appointed guides – visitors call them "minders" – want them to see. And they aren't permitted to photograph anything deemed embarrassing by the mysterious figures who make the rules.Skip to next paragraph
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Stops at Kim Il-sung's birthplace and museums glorifying his life are mandatory. People are told not to fold or toss newspapers and magazines emblazoned with pictures of him, his son, or his grandson, who took over after his father's death. There are constant reminders of their "on-the-spot guidance" in everything from agriculture to home building to industry to defense against what's claimed as a constant threat of an attack.
North Korea: military first and self-reliance
Superficially, the North Korean media venerates Kim Jong-un in superlatives that place him on nearly the same level as his forebears, while he pays at least lip service to the policy of songun, often in fiery rhetorical blasts against South Korea.
"If the US side wants another war, they will have to sign a document of surrender, not an armistice," the captain at Panmunjom dutifully quotes Kim Jong-un, elevated to the rank of marshal this month, as saying when he paid a visit in March. "We should defeat them using the Korean style of repelling them."
At the base of a tower honoring juche, symbolized by a hammer, a sickle, and a writing brush, a woman explains its significance in terms of "threats" by the country's main enemies: the United States, South Korea, and Japan, which ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony for 35 years before the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
"Our goal is to keep our sovereignty," she says. "By investing in the economy we could be better off, but to be independent is more important."
No one here would dare question that principle, but Kim Jong-un is believed to want to bring about change, at least in emphasis.
Signs of change?
The new leader is assumed to have been the one who convinced his father four years ago of the need for cellphones. Configured to make international calls impossible, they're widely seen here as a sign of the desire to modernize, though not break with the past.
More evidence of a buildup of Kim Jong-un was his appearance with a mystery woman later confirmed to be his wife, Ri Sol-ju, at a performance featuring Walt Disney characters.
North Korean state TV broadcast the show just as Kim Jong-un was about to face off against the top military chief – a hard-line general who owed his career to Kim Jong-il's military-first policy.
Reports have since emerged that conflicts over economic policy lay behind the decision to strip Gen. Ri Yong-ho of his posts while Kim Jong-un battles to remove the armed forces from control over the economy.
Kim Jong-un's ultimate goal would seem to be to put civilian experts in charge of an economy that was, as late as the 1960s, ahead of that of South Korea.
In fact, there was a time, during the period of Japanese rule over the Korean Peninsula that ended in 1945, that Korea's biggest industries were in the north. The old Japanese-made factories, later modernized with aid from the former Soviet Union, have largely fallen into disrepair – and disuse.