Don Kirk
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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