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MERCEDES, SUBWAYS AND WALKING – LIFE IN NORTH KOREA

By Graham Earnshaw, Reuters

PYONGYANG, Dec 5, Reuter – The train for Paradise leaves every seven minutes or so.

But there is a yawning gap between the names of the underground railway stations in the North Korean capital — like Paradise, Innovation and Bumper Harvest — and the reality above ground in what is one of the world’s most closed societies.

Pyongyang is at first glance a modern and beautiful city, featuring impressive monuments to the “Great Leader” — President Kim Il-sung.

Behind that facade, foreign residents say, lies a ruinously expensive attempt to convince the world and North Korea’s 20 million people that the country is, as it is officially called, the “People’s Paradise.”

The underground stations are sumptuously decorated with marble and chandeliers. But on highways leading out of Pyongyang people can be seen trudging for miles because they lack public transport or even bicycles.

The main avenues of the capital are spotlessly clean, lined with tall, impressive blocks of flats. But behind them are ramshackle dormitories and rubble-filled back alleys that visitors are not supposed to see.

The apartment buildings mostly have shops facing the street but many are curiously empty while others contain goods which are not for sale. Foreign residents say they are “fake shops” with goods placed there for show.

The government has spent a fortune on monuments in Pyongyang such as a 170-metre (570-foot) high tower to the philosophy of the Great Leader Kim.

The shops for local people where goods are sold are amongst the grimmest the Communist world has to offer.

Journalists visiting Pyongyang recently were shown round a kindergarten equipped with a swimmimg pool, a tricycle racetrack and an electric train in the playroom big enough to carry passengers.

Asked if she considered the kindergarten to be normal or special, the director replied: “Oh no, this is a normal kindergarten. Every city and town has kindergartens like this.”

“This country is like Hollywood in many ways,” said one foreign businessman with long experience in North Korea. “Many buildings are just shells with nothing inside of them. All they care about is this outward appearance, the image.”

The people of North Korea get almost no information about the outside world with which to compare their own situation.

The press is highly sanitised, containing little more than endless tributes to the Great Leader and his son, the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il.

Radios all have fixed dials so that local people cannot tune into foreign or South Korean radio stations.

On a visit to the monumentally huge People’s Library in the centre of Pyongyang journalists were shown a room containing 30 Sony radio cassette players.

While I fiddled with one of the machines and found that its tuning knob had been disabled, the library’s deputy director marched up and turned the power off.

North Koreans are taught that they live in one of the richest countries in the world, that South Koreans all live in abject poverty and misery and that people from the capitalist West would love to move here if they could.

With no information to the contrary, most North Koreans seem to believe the government, foreign residents say.

“People here are very naive,” said one foreign businessman. “They believe wholeheartedly in the propaganda. They believe this is the best country in the world because they have nothing to compare it with.”

North Koreans do enjoy free medical care, social security and rents calculated at two per cent of a worker’s salary. A tour guide said there was no rationing or food shortages.

Foreigners said almost all consumer goods were strictly rationed.

Diplomats in Peking said they understood the grain ration in Pyongyang had recently been cut by 14 per cent. Foreign residents said meat and vegetables were scarce.

A doctor at a showcase hospital, Chu Cheng-gil, said North Korea had no rape, no venereal disease, no unmarried mothers, no homosexuality, no unemployment and a divorce rate so low that it was impossible to quantify.

He said the country had no prisons, although he admitted there were some labour reform camps for ideological re-education.

While ordinary people often walk for lack of buses, Mercedes with smoked-glass windows cruise around the capital carrying members of the ruling elite.

A tourist guide said senior officials of the ruling Workers’ Party lived in the same buildings as ordinary people.

Foreign residents said luxury apartments for top party officials lined a section of Changgwang Street in central Pyongyang between the Soviet Embassy and the new 45-storey Koryo Hotel.

The street is closed off at night with road-blocks manned by troops. Buses and taxis avoid the area even during the day.

The wives of high-ranking officials, wrapped up in furs and dark glasses, can be seen in the “dollar shop”, an exclusive department store full of imported goods which can only be bought with foreign currency.

The elite are reported by foreign residents to have access to all Western luxuries, in spite of North Korea’s chronic shortage of foreign exchange. REUTER NNNN

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