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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The question is whether Kim Jong-un can grasp the depth of the problem – and then institute changes that would enable the economy to begin to revive.Skip to next paragraph
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Visitors, however, get no notion of serious conflict. They can't go on the Internet or receive e-mail. They have to deposit their cellphones at the airport on arrival. They're blocked from making local phone calls to anyone but diplomats and representatives of international organizations. Outgoing calls all have to go from hotel call centers, are extremely expensive, and presumably are monitored. Itineraries have to be set far in advance.
The rules are just as tough on foreign embassies and companies as they are on short-term visitors. They're unable to call even their own local staff members, all of whom are paid directly by the government, not their ostensible employers.
Much of the country, moreover, is closed to foreign diplomats.
The European Union nations maintain embassies, but their ambassadors readily acknowledge that they face many of the same limitations as do short-term visitors.
Diplomats, when they do travel, come back wondering about another issue – the gulf between the 3 million people living in Pyongyang and the country's 21 million other citizens. How long, they ask privately, will people remain so supine, amenable to the will of the center, before they seriously complain?
Where are the protests?
For now, such complaints do not appear to pose a serious threat.
The contrast between life in the capital and elsewhere, though, is obvious. Cars are more common here than elsewhere, and most of the country's 1 million cellphone users live in the capital and a few other major centers.
For many, life in the best of times is harsh. Down the east coast, on the way to the Mt. Kumgang tourist complex just above the North-South Korea line, thousands of "volunteers" hunker over portions of a rusted single-track rail line, hammering at rocks for the rail bed. No modern equipment is in sight.
Inside the Kumgang resort, at the foot of stupendous granitic peaks, the scene is one of desolation.
Business shows no sign of recovering since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak four years ago banned tourists from entering from the South after a guard shot and killed a middle-aged woman who'd ventured from the tourist zone to gaze at the sunrise.
A minder, normally polite and cheerful, rationalizes the incident: The woman, he says, ignored shouts and a warning shot and was wandering toward "an Army base."
As for Mr. Lee, he says, echoing state media, "I would like to kill him, not by shooting him, but with my bare hands."
At the martyrs' cemetery honoring those who died fighting the Japanese, atop Pyongyang's highest hill overlooking Kumsusan, the spacious memorial hall for the bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, hundreds of soldiers file by.
They're about 18 or 19 years old, but look 12 or 13 – the result of a lack of food that has stunted the growth of much of the populace. Some grin at the foreign visitors. A few wave good-naturedly despite the presence of grizzled sergeants accompanying them.
An inscription on a memorial reads: "The noble revolutionary spirit will live forever in the hearts of the people."
Judging from the faces of these teenagers, however, it's hard to believe that North Korea's vaunted 1.2 million-man Army, many of whom actually live on farms or in factories, not in military outposts, are ready or eager to fight.
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