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Contrasts, Control Are Stark In Potemkin Pyongyang

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Contrasts, Control Are Stark In Potemkin Pyongyang

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Contrasts, Control Are Stark In Potemkin Pyongyang

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has spoken out against a hereditary transfer of power to his own half-brother. He may well be the only North Korean able to express dissent, but he insists that he will abide by his father's decision.

NPR's Louisa Lim has just returned from Pyongyang, where she was one of a small group of foreign correspondents to cover the debut of heir apparent Kim Jong Un. In an unprecedented move, Louisa wasn't monitored for part of the trip. She was able to walk the streets of Pyongyang, eat in local restaurants and interact with ordinary people without government handlers. She sent these impressions.

LOUISA LIM: It's 8 o'clock in the morning here in Pyongyang and most people are now going to work. And what's really interesting is that we are smack-bang in the center of the city, yet there's almost no traffic. Almost everybody is walking to work.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Music is being piped from loudspeakers. This is the soundtrack to people's lives; a repertoire of about 20 rousing state-approved songs looping ad infinitum. It's yet another reminder of the regime's control over everything, including the very sounds its subjects hear.

It's long been known that life is unimaginably tough in North Korea. And last December, the state tried to push through currency reforms, which made it even worse. People aren't starving, but most are constantly hungry. For almost two months after the currency redenomination, the markets shut down, the restaurants shut down. There was simply no food available to buy, even in Pyongyang, home to the trusted politically reliable elite.

The currency reform was meant to reassert political control over the new merchant class. It failed. Since then, the markets are back up and running, but prices have roughly doubled. A simple meal for two - rice, a plate of kimchi and pork and two bottles of beer - costs three euros. That may not sound like much, but at best guess, it's roughly three days' wages. And at black market rates, it would take an ordinary person a month to make enough currency to change for three euros.

I say at best guess, but the truth is, nobody knows. North Korea is an information black hole, comparable to Ceausescu's Romania.

In the provinces, hospitals lack medicine, anesthetics, even running water. In the capital, stores do have goods on the shelves but not that many. In a seven-story department store, the higher the floor, the fewer the products on display. By the seventh story, stock had apparently run out and the entire floor was closed. One young man was seen buying a single pencil, a sure sign of how tight money is.

And yet, amongst this, there are pockets of unimaginable luxury. In the highest of high-end stores, designer sportswear sits alongside watches costing $10,000 and Intel computers. The Egyptian telecom company, Orascom, boasts 200,000 North Korean subscribers in less than two years. It's aiming for a million soon. And mobile phones aren't cheap.

In posh hotels, the favored few are openly sloshing back brandy with their Chinese business partners despite international sanctions on luxury goods. So, despite the currency reform, despite the sanctions designed to target them, the elite is still flourishing.

Despite this glaring disparity of wealth, nobody not one person expressed any sign of dissatisfaction. Watching heir apparent Kim Jong Un appear on television without any government minders present, a young man smiled and put his hand over his heart. At the rallies, the faithful wept with joy to be blessed by the presence of their dear leader and his young general.

This is no surprise. There's no doubt that discontent is growing, especially after the currency reform. But shows of dissent are punished by terms in prison camps. Voicing such thoughts to a Westerner is unthinkable. In this Potemkin city, people have learned to censor their thoughts and their faces just to survive.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Pyongyang.

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