On North Korea's streets, pink and tangerine buses

Amid reports of another food crisis in the pariah nation, a rare visit to the capital reveals slight improvements brought on by trade.

Editor's note: This report was filed by an Asian journalist who visited North Korea recently on a nonjournalist visa. The government rarely grants journalists official visas. To protect those who assisted with this trip, the reporter requested anonymity.

In Pyongyang, the streets still go dark when the sun goes down. But after two years of modest economic reforms and heftier trade with China and South Korea, the sun rises on more color in North Korea's capital. More vendors hawk their wares, more stylish clothes are imported from China, and a new fleet of Chinese double-decker buses cruise the streets in a palette of pink, green, tangerine, and deep blue.

After a two-year hiatus I came back to Pyongyang this spring for a visit that was as quick as it was hard to arrange. Two years ago, when I joined a delegation of Taiwanese businessmen, it seemed that our plane was landing on a farm - and the airport felt like a farmhouse. Now the airport looks newer and better organized.

How life is going in the rest of North Korea - how tolerable it is - can't be clearly known, since we aren't allowed to move freely. The society is one of the most closed in the world, and the regime is a serious human rights abuser.

Reuters reported Tuesday that millions of Pyongyang's residents are heading to the countryside as part of an annual mass mobilization to help farmers, citing aid workers and others. A businessman who travels frequently to North Korea told Reuters that this appeared to be the biggest mobilization of its kind in years. The World Food Program said there was a food crisis in the country and that its stocks were drying up because it had not received major aid since late last year.

But during my visit to Pyongyang, which is mostly made up of party and military officials, and state bureaucrats, the little things of daily life actually seem better. The capital bustled with more consumerism than it did two years ago. Today, one sees more shops - though still not many. Around the city, older women sell chewing gum, chocolate, and balloons made in China. Ice cream vendors sell dollops of frozen product in bright foam packaging. Grilled sweet potato and tea are found in small booths. Nevertheless, the shop clerks, in behavior reminiscent of China 20 years ago, seem uninterested in actually serving customers.

"There is apparently more money circulating around this society," said a foreign teacher based in Pyongyang, mentioning more cars, better clothes, and even more baby strollers.

One significant change in Pyongyang: A private car market is increasing, since personal ownership of vehicles is no longer forbidden, and there is more cash.

For years, most cars carried official black (military) or white (factory officials) license plates. But now one sees more and more brown plates - private cars. Visible in town are Japanese brands like Toyota and Nissan, Chinese cars, and the most sought after, Mercedes. Kim Moo Tae, head of North Korea-based Peace Motors Corp. (a North-South joint venture), said his company has set a production goal of 1,000 cars in 2005.

For most Pyongyang residents, owning a car is still a long way off, and most don't discuss it. They do talk with nostalgia of the brief period in 2003 and 2004 when cellphones were allowed. Without explanation, the government last year forbade their use, and a Japanese friend in Pyongyang says service hasn't resumed.

"We really loved carrying the mobile phones around," said a young, state- certified tour guide.

Despite the country's isolation, street talk is in a nascent commercial language.

A Chinese think tank director who has visited North Korea numerous times circulated a paper this spring that traces the changes to a moment in 2002 when Kim Jong Il declared that "money should be capable of measuring the worth of all commodities." The Chinese academic says that experiments are under way in North Korea that allow factory managers to fire underperforming workers and decide bonuses. But Pyongyang still sets wages.

Government officials are on the books as making about $35 a month. But the figure doesn't allow for the hidden economy, and doesn't explain how people - especially "general workers" who make about $10 a month - can pay for food amid inflation. According to the Chinese academic, rice last spring was $1.40 per kilogram. This winter it was $3.50 per kilo.

"Everyone was talking about money, money, money," said a Beijing-based North Korea expert who visited Pyongyang recently, and with whom I spoke. "I never saw it before."

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