A standstill

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 July, 2012, 12:00am


The rich-poor gap divides North Koreans between people in the capital of Pyongyang and those in the countryside more clearly now than ever. In my latest visit of 11 days this month, the quality of life in Pyongyang, population three million, seemed slightly better than on four previous visits, the most recent in 2008. Outside the capital, however, the pace seemed hardly to have changed.

Our tour bus got caught in occasional traffic jams in Pyongyang, a new phenomenon, but elsewhere we cruised almost alone over buckling highways past pastoral scenes and mountains often bereft of trees. We saw only occasional trains running along tracks in need of repair while 'volunteers', often women, banged away at stones for the roadbeds.

In more crowded regions, people rode or pushed bicycles, oxen pulled carts, and wood-burning trucks emitted smoke from stoves in the open cargo section. Our guides banned all photographs of the wood-burners - seen as a national embarrassment.

A visit to the country's largest industrial centre and second largest city, Hamhung, near the east coast, revealed decaying factories and decrepit apartments. Recently open to occasional visitors, Hamhung, population 800,000, struggles after years of famine. One of its products is a fabric called vinylon, made from limestone, but guides don't want anyone photographing the vinylon factory either - another embarrassment.

Driving south to the Diamond Mountain tourist zone, we find the central tourist area deserted. That's because a North Korean guard four years ago shot and killed a South Korean woman who'd strayed outside the zone, just above the North-South line, and the South barred South Koreans from going there. Small groups of Chinese show up, but clerks complain they don't want to spend. Guides lead visitors beneath granitic peaks - more awe-inspiring without droves of tourists.

The guides - we call them minders - won't let anyone talk to ordinary citizens, but we see that most people, having not had enough to eat since birth, are short and thin. Corn and vegetables grow up to the walls of the small houses in which millions in this country live. Families rely on their small plots to feed themselves and sell a little at nearby markets while also working on collective farms. The country still needs huge imports from China to fend off starvation.

While the elite of Pyongyang seem to get just enough to eat, their young new leader, Kim Jong-un, clearly overweight, smiles for state TV on visits to farms, factories, amusement parks and military units. The campaign to build him up, however, hardly disguises the reality that North Korea remains woefully short of fuel, food and all else.

Recalling now the museums and monuments venerating 'Eternal President' Kim Il-sung, the new leader's grandfather, we wonder how or if life can go on as before the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, last December - and whether the dismissal this week of 69-year-old Vice-Marshal Ri Yong-ho represents a real rift in the regime.

You won't get answers to such questions on a guided tour, but in a country and society mired in the past and going nowhere, you have to think something has to give - though how or when remains as much a mystery now as when I first visited 20 years ago.

Journalist Donald Kirk, author of Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine, has visited North Korea nine times