Kim In Su is probably one of the few people on earth who doesn't recognize Monica Lewinsky's name.
The North Korean grandmother likes it that way. "In North Korea, they don't broadcast what's not necessary," she says. "People don't need to know everything."
Mrs. Kim, a pseudonym, is one of a handful of North Koreans to visit Japan this year. Here to see family for the first time in over 20 years, Kim sat down with the Monitor to talk about life in the reclusive Communist country.
Her comments, while cautious, provide a window onto daily life in North Korea and suggest economic and political shifts in a country that still reveres its former leader, the late Kim Il Sung, as its "eternal president."
North Korea's internal workings have kept observers guessing for decades. They are of particular interest to South Korea, the United States, and China, which last month agreed with North Korea to conduct talks in January on a peace treaty between the North and South.
The neighbors are still technically at war since an armistice ended the 1950-53 Korean War and North Korea adopted its isolationism. The two countries now share the world's most heavily armed border, bristling with land mines and 2 million troops.
But after three years of floods, drought, and economic mismanagement, North Korea struggles to feed its 24 million people and must compromise to receive foreign aid. US officials who visited the country this summer estimate that as many as 2 million people may have died in famines there.
Kim describes a less desperate place. She certainly doesn't seem touched by hardship. Small and solid with salt-and-pepper hair, she wears a beige knit shirt over matching slacks and has all the trappings of a middle-class matron.
Her broad face is brightened with a dash of pink lipstick. A gold necklace glints under the lights in a cafe, as does a gold ring.
An ethnic Korean born in Japan, she is here to visit family she left behind when she went to the North in 1972 "to help rebuild" the country. Her family in Japan might have given her the clothes and jewelry she wears, but her physical appearance belies hardship as well. She is clearly well fed, with white, even teeth.
Privileges of capital life
She appears to be of the elite, but if you ask her, she's coy. "Elite? Hmmm," she says with a smile. "Our family is not all that high." Still, she is able to travel; her family in Japan has visited often. She lives in Pyongyang, the showcase capital that is heavily subsidized and where life is not nearly as harsh as it might be in rural areas.
"In Pyongyang, we have no sense of crisis. We have no problem getting food - rice, eggs, kimchi.
"Maybe [people do] in flood-hit areas," she allows. "The countryside is suffering, but to individuals, the government is still great."
Food is supplied by the state, she explains. "You don't really go shop. Whatever's in season is provided in one central store and it's distributed by the city council, which comes to your house."
"To a certain extent, we have choice now," she adds, explaining that a barter system has developed in which people can take their extra food to a market and trade it. That bartering might indicate a willingness to ease restrictions in the hopes that freer trade will provide more efficient distribution of food.
Kim's declarations about the food situation are tempered by outsiders' accounts. International aid agencies once active in North Korea have alleged that the food they distribute is directed to families loyal to the regime.
Kim's family clearly makes the government's grade. Her husband is a bureaucrat; her children have married scientists. Like millions of others, she is a member of the ruling Korean Workers' Party.
Interestingly, though, she makes no reference to juche, the ideology of self-reliance developed by Kim Il Sung that dominated North Korean thought until his death in July, 1994. "I wouldn't say I'm a Communist," Kim says, "but I wouldn't say I'm a capitalist either."
She is firmly nationalistic, saying that moving to North Korea was the best thing she could have done for her children. Health care is free, she says, as is a college education. "People describe North Korea as a poor country," she says. "But in reality people aren't that badly off."
Kim's relatives in Japan have a slightly different perspective. One of her nieces, who has visited North Korea, says she felt Kim's children were envious of her. "Her children think we're much better off," the niece says.
"I'm taller [than they are], and they thought it was because I eat good food. They have a fantasy of living in a capitalist country."
Kim is different, the niece says. "My aunt doesn't show those feelings. She's very content."
For all North Korea's supposed backward isolationism, the niece notes that Kim arrived aware of the latest Japanese vocabulary and technology like cell phones.
But Kim is dismissive of capitalists and their consumer gadgets. North Koreans still see the US as an imperialist country they fought in the war, she says.
Content with the North
Of their southern neighbor, Kim simply says, "I don't think about South Korea." She notes that in her absence, Japan has become a psychologically tiring place, wasteful and dominated by advertising "propaganda."
Pyongyang is a "revolutionary" city, she says, with clean water and air. "When we went, it was in ruins because of the war, but in the last 20 years construction has been very fast," she says. Its streets are full of cars, she adds, contradicting visitors' reports of the city as devoid of traffic.
For fun, she travels to the country's mountains. On weekends, she often invites friends over to stage mini music concerts. If she were interested in faith, she says she'd have the freedom to choose a religion.
Though sometimes "there is a lack of electricity," Kim says everyone in Pyongyang has a television. It provides diversions like the news, including international reports that are usually about "a big accident somewhere, or a big flood."
And then there's her favorite soap opera about a romance. "It shows you that wherever you live there's always love," Kim explains. "Not necessarily between man and woman, but also between family, and between people and their country."